Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

What follows is a very brief defense of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you want to read a longer version, which has much more detail, specific references, and citations, visit https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection. [1] Also, you can learn more about Jesus’ death and resurrection by visiting https://wbcommunity.org/crucifixion and https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection-resources.

The Meaning of the Resurrection

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The easiest way to grasp the importance of the resurrection is to imagine what would have resulted had Jesus not risen from the grave. If he had been crucified and sealed in a tomb, never to be seen again, how would we know that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, truly God and truly man? If he had remained in the grave, how would we know his death on the cross accomplished anything? If he didn’t rise in an immortal body, how could we have any hope for life after death?

Fortunately, Jesus did rise from the grave. He “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). The resurrection proves who Jesus is and demonstrates that he reigns in power.

Additionally, Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). This shows that he paid the sentence for our sins in full and walked out of the prison of the tomb a free man. His death paid the penalty for all the sins of those who are united to him by faith.

When Jesus rose from the grave, he rose as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). That means that his resurrection insures the future resurrection of all Christians. Though Jesus is the only one to be resurrected so far in history, all who are united to Christ by faith will be raised in the future when Jesus returns.[2] Like Jesus, each Christian will have an immortal, glorified body, one that cannot get sick and die. This is the great hope for Christians everywhere. The resurrection shows that God is making a new creation, one that began with Jesus, continues with our spiritual rebirth, and will culminate in resurrected bodies in a new heaven and earth.

That is the meaning of the resurrection in a nutshell.

But how do we know it’s true? If someone could somehow prove that Jesus never rose from the grave, Christianity would be refuted. For as Paul writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep [i.e., died] in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17–19). Certainly, if the resurrection were false, then Christianity would be, too. Fortunately, we have several lines of evidence that show that the resurrection is an historical event.

Miracles?

Before we consider the evidence, we should first address one major objection. Many people don’t believe Jesus’ resurrection is a real, historical event simply because they think such things are impossible. In other words, they don’t believe in miracles. Since I don’t have a great deal of space to defend the existence of miracles, I’ll make three relatively brief points.

One, some people think miracles never occur. But it would be nearly impossible to prove such a statement. Such a statement is not based on evidence, for two reasons. One, we have evidence for miracles. For thousands of years, in different times and in different places, different people have claimed to have witnessed miracles.[3]

Two, in order to disprove the existence of miracles, scientists would have to have observed, measured, and accounted for every event in history.[4] To say that no dead person in all of history has ever come back to life, scientists would have to have information regarding every dead body in all of history. But scientists simply don’t have access to such information. To say that miracles are impossible is an assertion that needs to be proved. That statement (“miracles are impossible”) is a philosophical assumption, not a scientific conclusion.

Two, some people, such as the philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), think that the low probability of miracles indicates that they are unlikely, if not impossible. Yet the probability of a resurrection is about the same as the probability of a universe arising out of nothing, which is what the Big Bang theory implies. The origin of life is also highly improbable. Just because something is improbable doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred.

Three, there are some events that are frankly impossible without an outside agent coming in to help. For example, I think it’s impossible for my son to bench press 225 pounds—unless I step in and help him lift that weight. Similarly, the origin of the universe and the origin of life are impossible—unless God does the work. So it goes with the resurrection. Usually, dead bodies stay dead. Everyone knows that. The earliest Christians knew that. That’s why they were so shocked when they saw Jesus alive again. Jesus’ resurrection shows that God is real and acts within the world he has made.

The Bible

The best witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the New Testament. This is not one witness to the resurrection, but many. After all, the New Testament consists of twenty-seven different books written by nine different authors, at different times, in different locations, and to different destinations. What is amazing is the fact that these many different witnesses proclaim a single, unified message regarding Jesus. It is important to note that these books were all written in the first century A.D., within seventy years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that they were written by eyewitnesses or those who gathered information from eyewitnesses. The New Testament is the best-attested book (or collection of books, really) from ancient history, in the sense that we have much greater manuscript evidence for these writings than we have for any other ancient text.[5]

All four Gospels show that Jesus was raised from the dead. First, they claim that after being beaten, flogged, and made to wear a crown of thorns, Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19).

The Gospels then report that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, and that some women witnessed the location of this tomb (Matt. 27:67–61; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:50–56; John 19:38–42). This tomb was sealed and guarded by soldiers (Matt. 27:62–66). Some women returned to the tomb on the third day and found that it was empty, a fact corroborated by John and Peter (Matt. 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–10). The risen Jesus was then seen by various groups of people. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” saw him and touched his feet (Matt. 28:9). He appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and he ate with them (Luke 24:13–30). Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples (Judas, the twelfth, had betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide) multiple times, showing that he had risen in a glorified body (Luke 24:36–40; John 20:19–20, 26–27). He even ate with them and prepared breakfast for them (Luke 24:41–43; John 21:12–14). Jesus died, and then he was alive again, able to appear and disappear at will. His resurrected body later ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:9).

The apostle Paul was also a witness to the risen Jesus. He had a very unique encounter with Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus (Acts 9). Additionally, Paul testifies to the resurrection several times in his letters. In some of his letters, written roughly twenty to thirty-five years after Jesus’ death, Paul seems to quote early creeds or hymns that date back to the earliest years of Christianity. These include Romans 1:3–4, 1 Corinthians 15:3–8, and Philippians 2:5–11. The first two passages clearly speak of the resurrection, while in the third passage, the resurrection is implied.

Extra-Biblical Christian Evidence

Many of the early Church Fathers, leading figures in Christianity in the two or three centuries after Jesus’ death, bear witness to the resurrection. One such witness is Clement of Rome. He was the first bishop of Rome at the end of the first century. In 1 Clement, he writes of the resurrection: “Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead.” This letter was written perhaps before A.D. 70, though the traditional date is 95–97.

Another early Christian witness to the resurrection is Polycarp (c. 69–c. 155). In his Epistle to the Philippians, written around A.D. 110, he writes these strong words: “For whosoever . . . says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.” Clearly, Polycarp thought the resurrection was of first importance.

Non-Christian Evidence

There are several non-Christian historians who mention Jesus and the early Church. We should consider this evidence, too. The Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37–c. 100) mentions Jesus twice in his Jewish Antiquities. In describing the fate of James, he states that this apostle is “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” We have no indications that Josephus became a Christian, but here he acknowledged that Jesus was called Christ, or Messiah, by some.

In another, longer passage in the Antiquities, Josephus states Jesus was a wise man known by his virtue, that he had followers, that he was condemned by Pilate to die, that his disciples reported that they had seen him alive after three days, and that they continued to follow him.

Another witness is Pliny the Younger (61–c. 112), who was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned 98–117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. He observes that Christians worshiped Jesus as one who is divine.

There are other references to Jesus from Roman writers such as Suetonius, and the Syrian Stoic philosopher, Mara bar Serapion.

Summary of the Evidence

If we were to take only the non-biblical, non-Christian evidence regarding Jesus, we could still establish certain facts. Jesus lived. He was a teacher, a wise man, and a virtuous man. He had followers. He was crucified during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, under the Roman prefect (governor) of Judea, Pontius Pilate. The disciples later claimed that after three days they saw a resurrected Jesus. Christianity grew quickly, spread to Rome, and changed the course of history.

Of course, if we add to this account what we know from the New Testament, we can say much more about Jesus. The only reason to refuse using the New Testament as an accurate collection of historical documents is an anti-Christian bias, or perhaps an anti-supernatural bias (refusing to believe in the miracles of Jesus, including the resurrection). However, if Jesus is God, the one who created the universe from nothing, no miracle is impossible for him.

Arguments for the Resurrection

In addition to observing the facts above, we can offer a few supporting arguments in favor of the resurrection of Jesus.

One is the Jewish expectation of resurrection. Jews believed in a resurrection at the end of history (Daniel 12:2; John 11:24), not the resurrection of an individual in the middle of human history. The disciples didn’t expect that Jesus would be resurrected, though he had told them he would. It seems that several of the disciples had doubts (see Matthew 28:16–17; Luke 24:36–43; John 20:24–25). Since this resurrection was not anticipated, it is highly unlikely that anyone would make this story up. (Also, if the Gospels weren’t true, why would they report the disciples’ doubts and flaws?)

Another argument is the transformation of the disciples. Reading through the Gospels, one gets the sense that they were sincere but rather thick-headed. They were also cowardly, fleeing when Jesus was arrested. Yet when we read Acts, we read of a group of bold witnesses to Jesus, willing to die for their faith. Only the resurrection (and the power of the Holy Spirit) could transform them in such a way. It should be added that these were not influential men; they didn’t have political power or riches.

Paul had a similar, though perhaps even more dramatic, transformation. He was changed from a persecutor of the Church to its greatest evangelist and missionary. Jesus’ brothers, James and Jude, also were converted from unbelievers to pillars of the church and writers of New Testament letters.

Finally, there is the dramatic outgrowth of Christianity from its Jewish roots. Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism, yet several Christian worship practices are dramatically different from Jewish ones. This dramatic change in religion can only be accounted for by something as dramatic as the resurrection. In fact, Christianity threatened Judaism and the Roman Empire. If someone invented this new faith, there would be no money or fame to gain. Instead, that person might very well be killed. The only reason someone would risk proclaiming the message of Jesus is if he believed it was true.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is impressive. The question is, will we believe it?

Notes

  1. Another online resource concerning the resurrection can be found here: https://credohouse.org/blog/evidence-for-the-resurrection-in-a-nutshell.
  2. It’s true that others, like Lazarus, were revivified: they were made alive, but they died again later.
  3. Craig S. Keener has written a large, two-volume work, much of which details miracle reports from different parts of the world. See Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011). For a more popular treatment, see Eric Metaxas, Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life (New York: Dutton, 2014).
  4. “One cannot inductively prove a negative without examining every possible instance” (Ibid., 1:105).
  5. For more on why we can trust the New Testament, visit https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament.

 

1 thought on “Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Comments are closed.