Ready to Answer - Lesson 13

By Jim Baird

Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?

Part II

Background Information for the Teacher


  1. Students will be able to list and explain the six major hypotheses that have been put forward to account for the resurrection facts without admitting the miraculous resurrection.
  2. Students will be able to explain why all six have failed to win the agreement of the majority of even skeptical scholarship, using the nine facts from lesson 12.


  1. It is important not just to read these notes to the class. The teacher should be very familiar with the outline and choose how to present the material, making notes in the margins as needed. Practicing the lesson a few times will allow the teacher to look at the students’ eyes while making the presentation.
  2. Some find it helpful to underline the key words that will spark their memory of what to say and do next.
  3. A teacher who is new to this subject would be wise to get copies of the resources listed at the bottom of this outline and study them as well.
  4. Blackboard should be provided, clean, with chalk and erasers.
  5. Students should have access to Bibles, or have overheads of all scriptures.
  6. For this lesson, students will need the study sheet listing the nine facts that make the case for the resurrection and the six theories put forward by skeptics. The underlined material in these notes appears in the handouts.


The most able skeptical scholars have not been able to come up with a convincing non-miraculous account of the facts that support the resurrection.

Lesson Plan for Conducting the Class

Introduction: (about 5 minutes)

  1. Remember from last week the nine facts that are largely accepted even by skeptical scholars.
    1. Fact #1 Belief in the resurrection of Jesus was well developed within a few years of the beginning of the church in Jerusalem.
    2. Fact # 2 Jesus died on the cross.
    3. Fact # 3 Jesus’ death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
    4. Fact #4 Jesus was buried in a tomb discovered to be empty within a few days.
    5. Fact #5 The disciples had experiences that they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus.
    6. Fact #6 The disciples who had been afraid became the first leaders of the church, and were willing to face persecution for their testimony to the resurrection.
    7. Fact #7 Sunday became the day of assembly for Christian congregations early in the history of Christianity.
    8. Fact #8 James, the brother of Jesus was an unbeliever during Jesus’ lifetime, but a believer soon afterJesus’ death. He became an important leader in the church and was a witness to a resurrection appearance.
    9. Fact # 9 Paul, a fierce opponent of Christianity, was converted by his experience of the resurrected Jesus.
  2. As we said, taken together, these nine facts create a very strong case for the resurrection.
  3. Of course, since accepting the resurrection pretty much insures that a person will accept the other claims of Jesus, none of us can be completely detached and objective about this evidence.
  4. But if we were able to be strictly objective, it seems obvious that the case for the resurrection would be considered one of the best-attested facts from ancient history.
  5. We certainly could point to thousands of claims about ancient history with far weaker evidence that are virtually never questioned. Historians confidently make claims about the life and deeds of Alexander the Great, but the two earliest biographies, Arrian and Plutarch, were written more than 400 years after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. [Jesus Under Fire, 29&30.]Much of what is routinely taught about the lives of Roman Emperors such as Augustus and Tiberius comes from sources such as Suetonius and Tacitus written a hundred years after the facts they report.

Learning Experiences: (about 45 minutes)

No non-miraculous hypothesis has gained the support of the majority of even those scholars committed in advance to the rejection of miracles. [Using the study sheets, find a way to let the students themselves discover why the following theories have failed to gain support. In a class of 11 or fewer, you could do this as a group, putting out each theory and letting the class try to find the problems. In larger classes, you could divide into groups of six or so members each, and let each group take one, two or three theories and criticize them. Have the groups report back to the class. In either scenario, you should add any points below that they have missed. Most classes will find this activity to be a lot of fun, and so this class might well be worth extending over two periods, if possible.]

  1. The Pious Fraud Hypothesis: the disciples of Jesus believed in him so much that, after his death, they began to report that they had seen him in his resurrected state. Even though they knew this was not true, they felt it was ultimately pleasing to God who wanted people to believe in Jesus.This hypothesis has been overcome more recently by the growing acceptance of Fact #5 - The disciples had experiences that they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus. Also extremely problematic is Fact #7: Sunday was the primary day of worship for Christians. If you were trying toconvince people that Jesus was the Jewish messiah, you would keep things as Jewish as possible. Also there are problems from the following:
    • Fact # 3: Jesus’ death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope. First you need something that changed this mood of the disciples before they would be in any condition to cook up a pious fraud. The resurrection explains the change in the disciples, but this theory cannot.
    • Fact #6: The disciples who had been afraid became the first leaders of the church, and were willing to face persecution for their testimony to the resurrection. It is hard to imagine how fraud, even pious fraud, could inspire the disciples to be willing to face much persecution. It makes sense to imagine the disciples being brave enough to die for their faith in Jesus if they believed that Jesus had conquered death. But where would believers in Jesus get such courage ifthey knew that Jesus himself had been conqueredby death?
    1. The Stolen Body Hypothesis: Some of the disciples of Jesus stole the body to encourage the belief that Jesus had risen from the dead. See Matthew 28:11-15. This hypothesis is refuted by the growing acceptance of Fact #3: Jesus’ death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope. This fact makes it highly unlikely that the disciples would be in the frame of mind to carry out such a daring deed and risk the retaliation of the authorities who crucified Jesus. It also suffers from all the defects mentioned above of the Pious Fraud Hypothesis.
    2. The Coma Hypothesis: Jesus, suffering from exhaustion, beatings and the rigors of the crucifixion, passed into a coma on the cross, and so was mistakenly allowed to be taken from the cross and buried. In the cool of the tomb, he revived and came out, to be seen by some of his closest followers. So began the story of his resurrection. As discussed above, the Coma Theory has been largely rejected and replaced by acceptance of Fact #2: Jesus died on the cross. This has been sufficient to drive the Coma Theory out of most serious scholarship (though not out of the popular imagination.) Furthermore, many have pointed out that the Coma Theory does not even provide a very convincing explanation of the resurrection faith of the disciples and their willingness to face persecution (Facts 5&6). For Jesus was proclaimed as the victor over death, and not as he must have appeared, a critically ill patient on the point of collapse. A final problem with the Coma Theory comes from its inability to explain the conversion of Paul (Fact #9).
    3. The Hallucination Hypothesis: Some of the grief-stricken disciples had hallucinations or visions of Jesus risen from the dead. As they told their experiences, others had similar hallucinations, and so the story of the resurrection became well established among Christians. The biggest problems with this hypothesis are facts 4, 7, 8 and 9.
      • Fact #4: Jesus was buried in a tomb discovered to be empty within a few days. Obviously, the Hallucination Hypothesis does nothing to explain this.
      • Fact #7: Sunday became the day of assembly for Christian congregations early in the history of Christianity. Hallucinations come from the mind of the one hallucinating, and so are unlikely to produce true novelty. But the switch from Sabbath to Sunday is completely novel, and unmotivated for the early Christians. A set of hallucinated resurrection appearances would have confirmed traditional Jewish practices rather than varied in this way. Facts 8 & 9, the conversions of James and Paul, are particularly difficult for this view, because neither of these were believers in Jesus, and so the Hallucination Hypothesis does not explain these cases at all.
    4. The Legend Hypothesis: As the Christian community spread from Jewish to more Gentile cultures, different, competing groups of Christians began to describe Jesus more and more in terms of legends of pagan gods and heroes, some of whom died and were resurrected. This has been a popular view, but it is chiefly refuted by the rising acceptance of Fact #1: Belief in the resurrection of Jesus was well developed within a few years of the beginning of the church in Jerusalem. Given Fact #1, the belief in the resurrection precedes the expansion of Christianity into non-Jewish cultures (and was clearly a key element in the evangelistic message driving that expansion.) Legends take time to develop, and Fact #1 shows that there was no time. Also, it is key to the Legend Hypothesis that the legend of the resurrection begins to grow once Christianity is away from Jewish culture, since, if it started in or around Jerusalem, there were too many eyewitnesses around to contradict it. Also, The Legend Hypothesis leaves the empty tomb (Fact #4), the switch to Sunday, (Fact #7), the conversion ofJames (Fact #8) and the conversion of Paul (Fact #9) completely unexplained. Probably the final argument stopper is the change in the disciples (Fact #6). The Legend Hypothesis requires a determined, evangelistic community, but without the resurrection, what changed the dispirited disciples into a community in the first place? The Competition Hypothesis: Different groups of followers of Jesus found themselves in competition with each other for converts. Claimed resurrection appearances became one way for competing groups of Christians to claim primacy for their favored leader or source of authority. All of this happened in the period before the main resurrection stories were written down in the Gospels. This is a version of both the Pious Fraud and Legend Hypothesis, and as such it has most of the same weaknesses they have. From the Pious Fraud Hypothesis it inherits the problem of outright contradiction of Fact #3, the belief of the disciples that they had really seen the resurrected Jesus.
    5. Also, Fact #6, the change in the apostles from cowards to martyrs becomes impossible to square with this hypothesis, just as with the Pious Fraud Hypothesis. From the Legend Hypothesis, it inherits the problem with Fact #1. This whole imagined process would take much longer than Fact #1 allows. Also, the Competition Hypothesis is no improvement on the Legend Hypothesis in dealing with the empty tomb (Fact #4), the switch to Sunday, (Fact #7), the conversion of James (Fact #8) and the conversion of Paul (Fact #9).

What now?

The failure of the hypotheses listed above has stimulated even more complicated hypotheses, combining elements of several of the above. While there are almost as many of these theories as there are skeptical scholars, none has succeeded in gaining the agreement of a majority of Biblical scholars. [As an exercise, you might have the students try to come up with their own combination theory. Usually it will become obvious that they have to bend some of the nine facts, or depend on a lot of ungrounded imagination about what might have happened. You should makesure they get this point.] The noted atheist Anthony Flew, in a published debate with Gary Habermas (Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?) said he did not have a theory to put forward, because the evidence is too incomplete to let us know what really happened. Even if we accept Flew’s position, we can still point out the following: If you are trying to write history with the preconceived notion that there are no miracles, you will never allow yourself to see any historical material as evidence for a miracle. On this assumption, if a miracle actually did take place, it would look like a gap in history, a place where we cannot make ordinary, non-miraculous explanations work. The resurrection of Jesus has been debated for 2,000 years. In the last 160 years, there has been more study aimed at it than any other event in ancient history. So no one can claim that what happened the third day after the death of Jesus has not been adequately studied. Yet scholars have been unable to come up with an explanation of what happened the third day after Jesus’ death that even committed non-believing scholars can agree upon. So the attempt to give a non-miraculous account of history finds a giant gap right where Christians claim their founding miracle occurred. This is exactly what you would expect if Jesus really was raised from the dead.Therefore, Flew’s position is as close as an atheist can come to confessing the miraculous resurrection of Jesus. But we should not accept Flew’s position.The resurrection has more witnesses, and better circumstantial evidence, than almost any other event in the ancient world, as already noted. Therefore, we cannot claim with a clear conscience that the evidence is insufficient.The honest thing for an unbeliever to do is to admit that no amount of evidence would be sufficient to convince him of the resurrection, because he is not willing to let himself believe in Jesus. But to those who are open to the possibility that Jesus might be who Christians say he is, the resurrection evidence provides plenty of objective support for that belief. As we have said all along, faith is more than just accepting evidence, however strong. But the evidence for the resurrection provides a strong foundation for those with the courage to take the next step into faith.

Application: (About five minutes)

  1. We have now reached the end of our study. We have seen how there is good evidence for faith in God and Christ.
  2. But we have also seen that no matter how good our evidence is it cannot make up someone’s mind. Each of us has to have the courage to put our trust in Jesus.
  3. Ask: Since that is true, what kinds of reactions will you get when you present evidence for Jesus? [Probe for the realization that some will believe and others will refuse.]
  4. Ask: When people refuse to believe, how will they treat you and your evidence? [Probe for the realization that they will sometimes be hostile, and to excuse themselves, they will make fun of the evidence in any way they can.]
  5. Ask: So how are you going handle the different reactions you will get when you talk about the evidence for Christianity?
  6. Nevertheless, our faith is not based on getting everybody to agree with us. We have seen that it is reasonable to believe that the one, absolute God of the Bible is the creator. We have seen how much evidence there is for the claim that Jesus is God’s unique Son. We know that we have to put our faith in someone or something. Therefore, we haveconfidence when we put our final faith in Jesus.

Further Resources:

  1. Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, Did Jesus rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate. Harper & Row, Publishers, San Francisco, 1987.
  2. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, Baker Book House, 1987, ch. 6.

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