One of the greatest challenges for the Christian faith involves the veracity of the resurrection account. Atheists and skeptics have little problem acknowledging the existence of Jesus, and even the fact he died by crucifixion on a cross. But many doubt the Biblical account of his resurrection. They doubt the resurrection because they hold to a worldview called “Naturalism” in which only events that can be explained by natural means are valid. The possibility of a supernatural event is dismissed out of hand before the evidence is even considered.
Muslims have a different reason for rejecting the resurrection. The Qur’an denies explicitly that Jesus was crucified in Sura 4:156. So if there was no crucifixion, there cannot be a resurrection; there is no event from which to resurrect.
James Patrick Holding, Christian apologist, wrote an article titled “How NOT to start an ancient religion.” He notes that both the crucifixion and the resurrection are seen as impediments to anyone wanting to invent Christianity in the first century. It’s NOT the way to invent a religion. He notes that crucifixion was utterly shameful, and if someone were intent on inventing a new religion, they would not include that religion’s founder as one to die a shameful death by crucifixion. The very act was “an utterly offensive affair, 'obscene' in the original sense of the word." “Crucifixion was a "status degradation ritual" designed to humiliate in every way, including the symbolic pinioning of hands and legs signifying a loss of power, and loss of ability to control the body in various ways, including befouling one's self with excrement. The process was so offensive that the Gospels turn out to be our most detailed description of a crucifixion from ancient times - the pagan authors were too revolted by the subject to give equally comprehensive descriptions - in spite of the fact that thousands of crucifixions were done at a time on some occasions.”
The idea of a resurrection after crucifixion was just as repugnant in the ancient world as it is today. The ancient Greek philosopher Eumenides said, "Once a man has died, and the dust has soaked up his blood, there is no resurrection." Historians note that belief in the resurrection in the first century was grounds for severe persecution, with one historian noting: "We should not forget that when Irenaeus became bishop of Lyons he was replacing the bishop who had died in a fierce persecution; and that one of the themes of that persecution was the Christians' tenacious hold on the belief in bodily resurrection. Details of the martyrdom are found in the letter from the churches of Vienne and Lyons to those of Asia and Phrygia.”
Even today, skeptics deny the resurrection. John Dominic Crossan of the so-called “Jesus Seminar” believes the body of Jesus was left on the cross to be devoured by dogs and vultures. There was no burial in a tomb, and no resurrection to be discovered by the disciples. From Crossan’s perspective, the resurrection was mere fiction—nothing more than a hallucination that emerged from the disciples’ deep-seated hopes and dreams that they might see Jesus again. If such critics have rightly reconstructed history, Good Friday was not good, and Resurrection Sunday was no triumph. Jesus died, his corpse remained on the cross, and the resurrection was nothing more than a series of hallucinations and fabrications.
The question then is this: Did the resurrection really happen, and if it did, how can we know? What evidence do we have?
Why Is The Resurrection Important to Christians?
The best articulation of the importance of the resurrection is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:
1Cor. 15:3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (4) and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, (5) and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. (6) After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. (7) After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. (8) Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
This is the heart of the gospel message. Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried, and conquered death by rising again to life. Indeed, if Jesus never rose from the dead, then Christianity is nothing more than a myth. Paul said it quite clearly:
1Cor. 15:12 Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (13) But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. (14) And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. (15) Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. (16) For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. (17) And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! (18) Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. (19) If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.
The Corinthians were taught, as part of Greek culture and philosophy, that there can be no physical resurrection; the Greek philosophers believed our souls are eternal, but our bodies are temporal and once dead, can never be resurrected. We even see this in Paul's aeropagus speech on Mars Hill in Acts 17:32
Acts 17:32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.”
Paul spoke of the resurrection as if it was a matter of fact. The confidence with which Paul spoke intrigued some of the Greek philosophers, so much that they wanted to hear more.
Was Jesus really crucified? Is there any evidence outside the Bible itself to substantiate the crucifixion?
WAS JESUS CRUCIFIED?
This is where we begin. If there is no crucifixion, there can be no resurrection.
- A centurion, an officer over 100 men, guarded Jesus as he died on the cross (Matt. 27:54)
- The Roman soldiers who beat Jesus sat and watched Him die (Matt. 27: 27, 36)
- Chief priests, scribes, and elders all watched Jesus die (Matt. 27:41)
- Many unnamed women whom Jesus had known watched Him die (Matt. 27:55)
Thus, the death of Jesus was witnessed by a significant number of direct witnesses. This sort of eye-witness evidence would suffice in any court. But, is it possible that they only thought they saw Jesus die, when in reality it was somebody else?
- Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home (John 19:25-27).
By entrusting the care of his mother Mary to the disciple John, Jesus as he died demonstrated a level of compassion no stranger or substitute could have shown.
- Thallos (55 A.D.): An ancient historian who wrote a three-volume history. In volume 3, Thallos mentions the darkness that occurred at the death of Jesus, just as recorded in Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, and Luke 23:44. Thallos certainly was no friend of Christians; he attempted to attribute the darkness to a solar eclipse, a natural phenomenon, rather than a miracle as scripture and tradition proclaimed. Julius Africanus rebuffed Thallos’ argument years later by noting that Jesus was crucified during Passover, which occurs during a full moon. A solar eclipse cannot occur during a full moon.
- There exists also an apocryphal work called "The Acts of Pilate" which includes the following in 4:12: "Pilate sent for the Jews and said to them, 'Did you see what happened?' But they answered, 'There was an eclipse of the sun in the usual way.'"
- Cornelius Tacitus (55-120 A.D.): This respected Roman historian had a disdain for Christians, calling them believers “in a most mischievous superstition.” Nevertheless, Tacitus confirms that this “sect” was formed from followers of “Christus,” who suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberias at the hands of Pontius Pilate.” The term “extreme penalty” refers to crucifixion, the most extreme form of punishment used during the Roman Empire.
- Lucian of Samosata (115-200 A.D.): A well-known satirist and lecturer, Lucian refers to Christians as “poor wretches” and “foolish people” who “accept such things on faith alone, without any evidence.” He also calls them ones “who worship the man in Palestine who was crucified because he brought this new form of initiation into the world.” Lucian further mocks Christians for believing “that they are all brothers the moment they transgress and deny the Greek gods and begin worshipping that crucified sophist and living by his laws.”
The Resurrection: Minimalist Evidence
Much of the following is derived from the work of Mike Licona and Gary Habermas in their book "The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus."
WHAT IS THE EVIDENCE FOR THE RESURRECTION?
While we believe the Bible to be inspired, trustworthy, and reliable, we cannot hold the skeptic to embrace our view of scripture. Thus, we cannot appeal simply to the Bible for evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. The skeptic does not accept the authority of the Bible like we do.
The minimal facts approach considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar (95%) who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones. These are the two criteria for proposing what are called minimalist facts:
- They are well attested historically
- They are accepted by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- Jesus' disciples believe that he rose and appeared to them
- The church persecutor Saul was suddenly changed.
- James, the skeptic and brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.
- The tomb was empty
JESUS DIED BY CRUCIFIXION
The crucifixion of Jesus is one of the best attested facts of history. We have already spoken about some of the witnesses to the event, both from the Bible and from secular sources. To recap:
- It is recorded in all four gospels. Each gospel writer is an independent source of history, each writing from a unique and individual perspective.
- Roman historian Tacitus writes in Annals: "Nero fastened the guilt [of burning Rome] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate." The term 'extreme penalty' was a euphamism for crucifixion, the most cruel and extreme form of punishment inflicted by the Romans.
- Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian, records "When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified..."
- Lucian of Samosata (Greek satirist): "The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day -- the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account"
- Mara bar Serapion (~73AD) wrote a letter in Syriac to his son from prison. His letter included, "Or what advantage came to the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that time their kingdom was driven away from them?" Although he does not name Jesus specifically, the title King of the Jews was ascribed to Jesus, and he admits this Wise King was killed.
- Even John Dominic Crossan, skeptic and cofounder of the Jesus Seminar, writes, "That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be."
JESUS' DISCIPLES BELIEVED HE ROSE AND APPEARED TO THEM
This fact is agreed upon by all scholars, including skeptics. The conclusion comes from two main factors to consider. We will look at both of these factors in detail.
- The disciples themselves claim that the risen Jesus had appeared to them.
- Subsequent to Jesus' death by crucifixion, his disciples were radically transformed from fearful, cowering individuals who denied and abandoned Jesus at his arrest and execution into bold proclaimers of the gospel of the risen Lord. They remained steadfast in the face of imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom. It is very clear they sincerely believed that Jesus rose from the dead.
(1) The Risen Jesus Appeared to the Disciples
- 1Cor. 15:3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
- Luke 24:36 Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” 37 But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. 38 And He said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” Luke 24:40 When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. 41 But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, “Have you any food here?” 42 So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. 43 And He took it and ate in their presence.
- John 20:19 Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.
Now a skeptic might claim, "This is from the Bible, and I don't believe the Bible," as though you are using the Bible to prove the Bible. But realize that we are not using the Bible here as a source of theology, but simply as an historical text. The Bible is as much an historical text as other works of history; in fact, some universities have used the Bible as a history textbook because it's history has been proved accurate. Further, the New Testament is, if nothing else, a historical collection of 27 letters or separate texts composed by a number of different authors.
Someone might say to you, “but the disciples would have been writing with a specific purpose in mind (meaning evangelism), so we cannot trust them to be giving the truth. They might be reporting what they believe, but how do we know that what they said was the truth?” Historians understand that ancient writers usually wrote with a specific purpose in mind, and that most writings contain factual errors and propaganda. However, they can still use parts of those documents to find historical truths. If they eliminated all ancient sources due to bias and error, they would have basically no knowledge of any part of the ancient past. This is the same process that is used in the minimal facts approach, which is why the Bible is included as a source along with non-Biblical documents.
Now, we need to recognize that just because the disciples think they saw Jesus doesn’t automatically mean that they really did. There are three possible alternatives:
- They were lying
- They hallucinated
- They really saw the risen Christ
Which of these is most likely?
Were they lying? On this view, the disciples knew that Jesus had not really risen, but they made up this story about the resurrection. But then why did 10 of the disciples willingly die as martyrs for their belief in the resurrection? People will often die for a lie that they believe is the truth. Just look at Muslims, for instance. They sincerely believe Islam to be the truth and are willing to die for it. But if Jesus did not rise, the disciples knew it. Thus, they wouldn’t have just been dying for a lie that they mistakenly believed was true. They would have been dying for a lie that they knew was a lie. Ten people would not all give their lives for something they know to be a lie. Furthermore, can we reasonably believe that the disciples could have covered up such a lie?
Because of the absurdity of the theory that the disciples were lying, we can see why almost all scholars today admit that, if nothing else, the disciples at least believed that Jesus appeared to them. But we know that just believing something to be true doesn’t make it true. Perhaps the disciples were wrong and had been deceived by a hallucination?
A mass hallucination is the theory embraced by John Dominic Crossan of “The Jesus Semimar.” He says the disciples wanted to see Jesus again so much that they hallucinated his appearance to them. But how well does such a mass hallucination hold up to critical examination. As it turns out, not so well.
The hallucination theory is untenable for a couple of reasons.
First: it cannot explain the physical nature of the appearances. The disciples record eating and drinking with Jesus, as well as touching him. This cannot be done with hallucinations.
Second, it is highly unlikely that they would all have had the same hallucination. Hallucinations are highly individual, and not group projections. Imagine if I said to you, “wasn’t that a great dream I had last night?” You would look at me with a puzzled look! Hallucinations, like dreams, generally don’t transfer like that. If I have a hallucination, you probably don’t and you wouldn’t even know I had one. Further, the hallucination theory cannot explain the conversion of Paul, three years later. Was Paul, the persecutor of Christians, so hoping to see the resurrected Jesus that his mind invented an appearance as well? And perhaps most significantly, the hallucination theory cannot even deal with the evidence for the empty tomb, which we will look at shortly.
Since the disciples could not have been lying or hallucinating, we have only one possible explanation left: the disciples believed that they had seen the risen Jesus because they really had seen the risen Jesus.
(2) The disciples were radically changed subsequent to the crucifixion and resurrection.
a. Saul was dramatically and suddenly changed
Paul was an unlikely convert to Christianity. He had been a known persecutor of Christianity and yet his conversion was based on what he perceived to be an experience of the risen Jesus. His conversion was based on primary evidence, not secondary evidence, such as believing what others told him about Jesus. This testimony carries considerable weight. Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians 15 are considered some of the earliest writings from the New Testament and are therefore closest to the events themselves. Due to the early nature of these writings, scholars grant much of what Paul reports to be historically reliable. What can be shown from this material is 1) an ardent enemy of Christianity converted to Christianity based on an experience he believed to be the risen Jesus 2) the convert’s name was Paul and he recorded these experiences himself (a primary source) and 3) He testified to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
His belief that he had witnessed the risen Christ was so strong that he, like the original disciples, was willing to suffer continuously for the sake of the gospel, even to the point of martyrdom.
b. James, brother of Jesus and skeptic, was suddenly changed
Paul also wrote about another foe Jesus appeared to, which was James, Jesus’ brother.
- Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 1 Corinthians 15:7-8
The information regarding James’ status as an “enemy” of Christ comes from the reports in the Gospels (Mark and John). However, this material would not be seen as favorable to the cause of Christ by including it in these books. In fact, Jesus’ own brother’s disbelief in him is rather embarrassing testimony to the faith. Later on, however, James was identified as the leader of the church in Jerusalem after the alleged resurrection of Jesus. He eventually was martyred for his commitment to the Christianity as reported by Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement of Alexandria. Paul gives an account of the appearance of Jesus to James as part of an early creedal statement in making a defense of the resurrection.
So far we’ve looked at several pieces of evidence, each of which taken individually would not amount to much, but as a whole forms a pretty compelling case for the resurrection. The conversion of Paul, considered in isolation, is not very convincing by itself. But all the evidence taken together forms a substantial case. Let’s look at the last piece of evidence.
The Tomb was empty
The empty tomb is granted by 75% of the scholars writing on the resurrection. Though this is not the 95% or better of the other three facts, it is still a rather high consensus of scholarship. The reason behind the percent of agreement concerning this controversial fact can be broken down into three areas: 1) The Jerusalem Factor 2) Enemy attestation 3) The testimony of women.
The Jerusalem Factor
First, the resurrection was preached in the same city where Jesus had been buried shortly before. Jesus’ disciples did not go to some obscure place where no one had heard of Jesus to begin preaching about the resurrection, but instead began preaching in Jerusalem, the very city where Jesus had died and been buried. They could not have done this if Jesus was still in his tomb–no one would have believed them. No one would be foolish enough to believe a man had raised from the dead when his body lay dead in the tomb for all to see. As Paul Althaus writes, the resurrection proclamation “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned.”
Second, the earliest Jewish arguments against Christianity admit the empty tomb. In Matthew 28:11-15, there is a reference made to the Jew’s attempt to refute Christianity be saying that the disciples stole the body.
Matthew 28:11-15 – “While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.”
This is significant because it shows that the Jews did not deny the empty tomb. Instead, their “stolen body” theory admitted the significant truth that the tomb was in fact empty. The Toledoth Jesu, a compilation of early Jewish writings, is another source acknowledging this. It acknowledges that the tomb was empty, and acknowledges attempts to explain it away. Further, we have a record of a second century debate between a Christian and a Jew, in which a reference is made to the fact that the Jews claim the body was stolen. So it is pretty well established that the early Jews admitted the empty tomb.
Enemy Attestation/Hostile Witnesses
If testimony about an event or person is given by a source who does not sympathize with the person, message or cause that benefits from the affirmation, then there is reason to believe the testimony’s authenticity. For example, if my mother were to say I am an honest person, you may think she is biased because she is my mother. But if an enemy of mine were also to say I am an honest person, his testimony would be more credible, because as my enemy his tendency would tend toward bias against me.
The empty tomb can be found either implicitly or explicitly stated in the works of Josephus, Justin Martyr’s “Dialogue with Trypho,” Tertullian’s “On Spectacles,” and in the Jewish Toledoth (a derogatory version of Jesus’ life in Jewish tradition). So once again, enemies of Christianity admit to a foundational belief, at least implicitly, by admitting the tomb was empty.
Testimony of Women
From J. Patrick Holding's "How to NOT invent an ancient religion": If I had an intention of creating a story to make myself (or my story) look good, I would most likely not include information that would be damaging or embarrassing to the credibility of my story. By that standard, it would be an odd invention to have the women as the first witnesses of the empty tomb. Yet in the accounts of the empty tomb, the women are exactly that, the first witnesses, in all four gospel accounts. This report would most likely be damaging to the case for the empty tomb when taken in context of the first century socio-cultural norms.
The testimony of a woman was not regarded as highly as the testimony of a man. Habermas and Licona quote a few Jewish writings on this matter:
- Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women. (Talmud, Sotah 19a)
- But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…..; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment. (Joshephus, Antiquities 4.8.15)
- Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer), also they are not valid to offer. This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman. (Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 1.8)
Why would the gospel writers include women as the number one witnesses to the empty tomb when it would behoove their cause to use men instead? The reason would be because they were reporting the truth; they reported facts, embarrassing as that may have been in the culture of the time.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the various theories used to explain away the empty tomb, such as that the body was stolen. But those theories are laughed at today by all serious scholars. In fact, they have been considered dead and refuted for almost a hundred years. For example, the Jews or Romans had no motive to steal the body–they wanted to suppress Christianity, not encourage it by providing it with an empty tomb. The disciples would have had no motive, either. Because of their preaching on the resurrection, they were beaten, killed, and persecuted. Why would they go through all of this for a deliberate lie? No serious scholar holds to any of these theories today. What explanation, then, do the critics offer, you may ask? Craig tells us that “they are self-confessedly without any explanation to offer. There is simply no plausible natural explanation today to account for Jesus’ tomb being empty. If we deny the resurrection of Jesus, we are left with an inexplicable mystery.”
The resurrection of Jesus is not just the best explanation for the empty tomb, it is the only explanation in town!
So let’s recap.
- Jesus died by crucifixion. This fact is indisputable.
- The disciples firmly believed they saw the risen Jesus, even to the point of martyrdom. This fact is indisputable.
- Paul was changed from an enemy of Christians and persecutor to an adamant believer after encountering what he firmly believed to be the risen Jesus. This fact is indisputable.
- James, the half-brother of Jesus and early skeptic was radically changed to a believer after encountering the risen Jesus. He went on to become a leader of the early church. This fact is indisputable.
- The tomb was empty. Early enemy sources confirm this. This fact is indisputable.
Did Jesus rise from the dead? You bet he did! It’s the only valid conclusion. And because he did, we will also.