How Can We Know the Historical Jesus?

How Can We Know the Historical Jesus?[1]
Brian Watson
December 3, 2017

People believe many different things about Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus is the eternal Son of God who became a man. (Jesus has always existed as God, and at one point in human history he added a second nature, of a human being, when he was miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin.) Muslims believe that Jesus was only a prophet and not the Son of God. Other people, like those drawn to New Age spirituality, believe that Jesus was a wise man or a spiritual teacher. Some have imagined that Jesus was a political revolutionary. And still others believe the whole story of Jesus is fictional, no more than a legend or myth. How can we know the truth about Jesus?

Examining History

The Christian claim about Jesus is that he was born in roughly 5 B.C. and that he died in either A.D. 30 or 33.[2] How can we know what happened two thousand years ago? To state an obvious truth, we don’t have audio or video recordings of what happened then, so we can’t hear or see what happened at that time. Obviously, we weren’t there.

In order to discover what happened the past, we have to operate like police detectives, examining the scene of a crime. Detectives look for evidence, which may include physical evidence and personal testimony.

Many historians turn to physical artifacts, ones that archaeologists discover. These can range from structures that have inscriptions (buildings, columns, etc.) to coins or any other objects that might give us information about the past. Often, these objects are rare. With Jesus, we wouldn’t expect to find much, if anything, along those lines. He was not a political ruler or a wealthy man.

More often, historians look for written testimony. That’s what we’ll have to look at to know the truth about Jesus. And we do have various writings that mention Jesus.

Before we look at those, keep some other truths in mind: Two thousand years ago, there was no printing press. Everything was handwritten, and writing materials were relatively expensive and scarce. Also, literacy rates were lower, so fewer people knew how to write (and read). Furthermore, most materials decay or can be destroyed. We can assume that many documents have been lost or destroyed, or have simply decayed. That explains why we have few historical documents about anyone who lived in the ancient world. For example, Tiberias, the emperor who reigned A.D. 14–37, was the most powerful man in his day and yet there are only four written sources about him from the first two hundred years after his death that exist today.[3] (Another thing to keep in mind: There was often a significant gap of time between historical events and written histories. Often, decades elapsed between an event and when that event was chronicled.) Fortunately, we have many documents that detail the life of Jesus.

Non-Christian Histories

Let’s first examine histories of Jesus that were written by non-Christians. I don’t think that these sources are more trustworthy than Christian sources. The only reason to think so is an anti-Christian bias. But I begin here because the non-biblical evidence for Jesus’ life is not well known.

One source is the Jewish historian Josephus (c. A.D. 37–c. 100), who lived in Palestine and was involved in the Jewish War against Rome, which began in 66. After he was captured by the Romans, he became a Roman citizen, and he began to write. Josephus mentions Jesus twice. One short reference to Jesus is in his Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jewish people. In describing the martyrdom of James, he states that this apostle was “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”[4]4 The Christ is the Messiah, the long-awaited anointed Jewish King who would usher in a reign of peace and righteousness. Josephus didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but he observed that other people thought he was.

Josephus refers to Jesus elsewhere in the Jewish Antiquities (18.63–64). There is some evidence that Christians added words to this text to create a stronger witness to Jesus. Yet it’s likely that in the original quote, Josephus acknowledged that Jesus was known for his virtue, that he had followers, that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate, that his followers reported that he rose from the grave, and they did not abandon the way of Jesus.

Roman historians also wrote about Jesus. Suetonius (c. A.D. 70–c. 160) wrote a history of the lives of many of the Roman emperors, the Caesars. He wrote about how Emperor Claudius (reigned A.D. 41–54) expelled Jews from Rome in A.D. 49., an event also referenced in Acts 18:2. “He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.”[5] “Chrestus” is most likely a misspelling of “Christ.” It seems that Suetonius thought he was a person living in Rome and causing unrest. (Christians began preaching about Christ in Rome, and this caused controversy among some Jewish people who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah.) Suetonius also referred to Christians during the time of Emperor Nero (A.D. 54–68). He writes, “He [Nero] likewise inflicted punishments on the Christians, a sort of people who held a new and impious superstition.”[6]

Another Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 56–117), also wrote of Christians and Christ. After a fire broke out in Rome in A.D. 64, people were looking for someone to blame, and even the emperor, Nero, came under suspicion. Tacitus reports that Nero blamed the fire on Christians:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt 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 Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[7]

Tacitus traces the origins of Christianity to “Christus,” a Latinized version of “Christ.” Notice that Christianity was “checked for the moment” after Jesus’ death, only to break out again. This detail harmonizes with what we know from the Bible. After Jesus’ death, the disciples were hiding. Even after his resurrection, the disciples did not do any public teaching. The disciples weren’t active until they received the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Within three decades, Christianity had spread to Rome.

Yet another Roman wrote about Jesus. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61–c.112) was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned A.D. 98–117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. He says that the prayed to Jesus “as to a divinity.”[8]

Christian Histories

Not surprisingly, there are more Christian documents that mention Jesus, and these documents are far more detailed. The New Testament of the Bible consists of twenty-seven documents written by eight or nine authors. (We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews.) Four of these documents are Gospels, theological biographies of Jesus. (“Gospel” means “good news.”) One of those documents is a history of the early church (the book of Acts), which includes more information about Jesus. Twenty-one of those documents are letters that provide theological commentary on Jesus’ identity and works. Though they are not stricly histories, they include historical information.

The Gospel writers clearly saw themselves as writing history. Luke is the best example. He begins his Gospel by acknowledging that other accounts of Jesus existed. He decided to write “an orderly account” based on the testimony of “eyewitness and servants of the word” (Luke 1:1–4). In his Gospel and in its sequel, the book of Acts, Luke is careful to provide a historical context for his writing. He begins by recounting events that occurred in “the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5). Jesus was born during the time when Caesar Augustus required citizens to be registered, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria (Luke 2:1–2). Jesus began his public ministry in “the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. Many more historical details are provided in the book of Acts.

The historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet. He couldn’t have invented the historical details he includes in his writings. New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13–28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[9]

Much more can be said about the historical reliability of the New Testament, though space allows me only to provide three reasons why we should trust the historicity of the New Testament.[10]

One other reason to trust the New Testament is that its writing is not like myths. The Gospels read like other ancient histories or biographies. They are more restrained than later documents that were not based on eyewitness testimony and that are rather fanciful. (Compare this to fanciful events in The Gospel of Peter, which comes from the second century and is not written by Peter. The Gospel of Peter features a resurrected Jesus whose head extends to heaven, not to mention a talking cross!)

Another reason to trust the New Testament is that the documents were written within a lifetime of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some think these documents were written later, perhaps in the early second century, but those arguments are based on speculation and they lack supporting evidence. Take the example of Luke as an example: He claims to have used eyewitness reports. This means he must have written his Gospel within a few decades of Jesus, while those eyewitnesses were still alive. It’s unlikely that he wrote after the 60s because he doesn’t write about significant events that took place after the year 62, such as Peter’s and Paul’s deaths as martyrs in the mid-60s or the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Luke and Acts couldn’t have been written as late as the end of the first century because passages from both books are alluded to in 1 Clement and 2 Clement, non-biblical Christian documents that were written at the end of the first century.[11] There is no good reason to assume that any of the New Testament documents were written after the first century.

A third reason to trust the New Testament is that we have more and earlier manuscripts of the New Testament than other ancient literature. For example, Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 B.C., and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates around nine hundred years later.[12] Yet, when it comes to the New Testament, we have a wealth of manuscripts. Here’s a general rule regarding ancient documents: The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, in part or in whole. We have more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.

The point is that, based on what we know, the New Testament are historical documents that reflect what truly happened about two thousand years ago. They testify that Jesus is the God-man, the eternal Son of God and Jesus of Nazareth, who performed miracles, taught with unmatched authority, lived a sinless life, died an atoning death for the sins of his people, and rose from the grave. The question is, will we trust the message about Jesus and put our faith in him?

Notes

  1. For more details, see https://wbcommunity.org/how-can-we-know-jesus.
  2. Some people imagine that Jesus was born in the year 0. There is no year 0. The year after 1 B.C. is A.D. 1. For details, see https://wbcommunity.org/when-was-jesus-born. It might seem strange that we don’t know the exact dates of his birth or death. However, this is not strange when compared to other figures in ancient history. The modern calendar didn’t exist at that time, so events were often dated with respect to other events. Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. and we know that Jesus was born prior to his death. We also know that Jesus died at that time of the Passover sometime during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberias and when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. That could be A.D. 30 or 33.
  3. Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 215.
  4. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 20.200, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987).
  5. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Claudius 25, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, ed. Alexander Thomson (Medford, MA: Gebbie & Co., 1889).
  6. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Nero 16, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.
  7. Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals 15.44, edited by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44
  8. Pliny the Younger, Letter 97: To the Emperor Trajan, http://www.bartleby.com/9/4/2097.html.
  9. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990).
  10. For more on the reliability of the New Testament, see https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament.
  11. 1 Clem. 2.1; 5.6–7; 13.2; 48.4; 2 Clem. 13.4.
  12. Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.

 

The Testimony of God (1 John 5:6-12)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 5:6-12. What is the content of the Christian faith? How do we know it’s true? Why should we believe it? Christianity says that God became man and has spoken to us. This grand claim should cause us to, at the least, examine the evidence.

True and Rational Words (Acts 25-26)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Acts 25-26 titled, “True and Rational Words.” In this passage, Paul is on trial before the governor, Festus, and he presents the case for Christianity to Herod Agrippa II. When Christianity is on trial, we see that it is true because it is the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament and the resurrection of Jesus is supported by eyewitness testimony.

Evidence for God: Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument concerns the cosmos, or universe. And what an amazing thing this the universe is, filled with galaxies, stars, and planets, including our own. Earth itself is an amazing thing, teeming with complex life. When we consider the universe, we are filled with a sense of awe. The philosopher C. Stephen Evans calls this “cosmic wonder.” He writes, “For different people it is engendered in different ways. For some it comes from contemplating the wonders of nature, gazing into a vast, starry sky or pondering a soft, dreamy sunset. For others, it comes at a birth or at the death of a friend or relative. But I am convinced that this experience is genuine and almost universal.”[1]

This cosmic wonder may cause us to wonder why we exist, or why anything exists. Those of us given to philosophical reflection might ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The existence of the universe is the subject of the cosmological argument.

Before we look at the cosmological argument, we should consider something very important. We are trying to present evidence for a God who is not bound by space, time, physics, chemistry, or biology. He is spirit, not a man of flesh and bones. We cannot see God, or conduct an empirical test that proves he exists. Therefore, all our evidences of God are somewhat indirect. Tim Keller calls them the “clues of God.”[2]

By trying to find the clues of God, we are like detectives. We look for evidence. We cannot recreate the beginning of the universe in a lab. It is a one-time historical event. Some atheists require that we present airtight proofs for God. However, this is unreasonable, and something that they don’t ask of themselves. (They cannot provide airtight proof for evolution, and they certainly cannot empirically disprove the existence of God.)

Consider the following discussion of searching for the evidence of God.

When a Russian cosmonaut returned from space and reported that he had not found God, C. S. Lewis responded that this was like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle looking for Shakespeare. If there is a God, he wouldn’t be another object in the universe that could be put in a lab and analyzed with empirical methods. He would relate to us the way a playwright relates to the characters in his play. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree the author chooses to put information about himself in the play. Therefore, in no case could we “prove” God’s existence as if he were an object wholly within our universe like oxygen and hydrogen or an island in the Pacific.[3]

Similarly, in an essay, C. S. Lewis writes, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[4] We cannot look directly at the sun (well, not for long, and we shouldn’t do it if we value our eyesight), but we can learn much about the sun by seeing how it illuminates the world and helps vegetation grow. In much the same way, we can learn about God.

At the risk of overkill, I will add one more quote that makes a similar point. It is one worth stressing, because atheists and agnostics must realize that our knowledge of God cannot be acquired through scientific testing. This is what Winfried Corduan advises:

Don’t bother trying to invent some kind of a spiritual magnifying glass to try to see God. God’s own nature keeps this from becoming a possibility; after all, if he exists he must be an infinite, invisible spirit, just the kind of being who is impossible to detect directly. But what you can do is to look at the actual world to see if it is put together in such a way that it must have been created by God. In fact, someone who believes in God is very likely to say:

Unless there were a God, there could not be any world.

Someone who expresses this sentiment is not just looking for one specific attribute of the world. It is the very existence of the world that leads a person to realize there must be a God who created it.[5]

This is what the cosmological argument addresses. The universe exists; therefore, God exists.

The Argument

Prominent Christian theologians, philosophers, and apologists have used various forms of the cosmological argument over the years. The Dominican priest, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1724), used it as one of his five proofs for the existence of God in his magisterial Summa Theologica. German mathematician and philosopher G. W. F. Leibniz (1646-1716) used a different form of the cosmological argument. Going back further in history, a Muslim theologian, Al-Ghazālī (1058-1111), formulated the kalām cosmological argument.[6] His argument: “Every being which begins has a cause for its beginning; now the world is a being which begins; therefore, it possesses a cause for its beginning.”[7] We will use a modified version of this argument. While it may seem strange to borrow a theistic argument from a Muslim, we must remember that all truth is God’s truth. “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22), and Daniel was instructed in the literature, language, and wisdom of the Chaldeans (Dan. 1:4, 17). We, too, can learn some things from people of other faiths, even if their faith is wrong. Sometimes it is necessary to plunder the Egyptians.

The following is a formal statement of this argument:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

To which we can add:

4. The cause of the universe is God.[8]

The first part of argument (the first two premises and the conclusion) is valid. We will examine the first two premises to see if they are true. If they are true, the argument is sound, the conclusion inevitable. And the conclusion (the universe has a cause) should lead us toward God, who is the only being capable of creating the universe out of nothing.

Whatever Begins to Exist Has a Cause

This premise should be self-evident. As Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli wryly state, “Most people—outside of asylums and graduate schools—would consider it not only true, but certainly and obviously true.”[9]

It is important to know that this premise says, “Whatever begins to exist has a cause.” It does not say, “Whatever exists has a cause.” Many atheists try to twist this argument into that shape. Bertrand Russell once wrote, “If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.”[10] Richard Dawkins likes to say, “Who did God?” or “Who designed the Designer?” (This latter question is supposed to be a refutation of Intelligent Design.) These are classic straw man arguments. They build up a false or weak argument (the straw man), only to knock it down.

The real argument says that everything that begins to exist has a cause. This means everything that is not eternal, that is not infinite, has a cause. We can call these things finite or contingent things. What constitutes such a thing or being? Corduan provides a list of conditions regarding a contingent/finite thing:

1. It is restricted by time and space.

2. It can be changed by something other than itself.

3. It has a beginning in time.

4. It needs things other than itself to continue existing.

5. Its attributes, whether essential or accidental, are to some extent influenced by other things.[11]

The only thing or being that does not meet these conditions is God. He is not bound by time and space; he cannot be changed by others and he is unchanging; he has no beginning (and no end); he needs nothing from anyone else; and his attributes are not influenced by others (though we can debate how much his actions and plans are influenced by prayer).

It is also important to remember that in Christian theology, there is a distinction between the Creator and the creation. God, by his very nature, is eternal and uncaused. He simply exists. As he told Moses, “I am who I am” (Exod. 3:14). In different eastern religions and New Age thought, there is no distinction between God and creation. In atheism, there is only creation. (Of course, they would simply talk about the universe or the cosmos, not “creation.”) But in Christianity, there has always been a clear distinction. This doctrine is not one created to support the cosmological argument; rather, it is as old as the Bible.

Not only does this first premise support the message of Christianity, it is obvious from experience. Everything we see and experience has had a cause. You and I have causes (our parents), and they had causes, and those causes had causes, and so on. As we move backwards in time, through the great chain of causes, we realize that everything must have a cause, and at the end of that regress, there must be one uncaused cause.

Still, as we will see, some atheists try to deny this first premise. According to Quentin Smith, “the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing.”[12] To such a comment, William Craig Lane responds, “To suggest that things could just pop into being uncaused out of nothing is to quit doing serious metaphysics and to resort to magic.”[13] He observes that this claim is not scientific, but metaphysical, or philosophical. However, if something could truly come from nothing, how could this be? The question Craig asks is, “if prior to the existence of the universe, there was absolutely nothing—no God, no space, no time—how could the universe possibly have come to exist?”[14] Clearly, for something to come from nothing would be against all known laws of physics, in addition to being contrary to common sense.

Though some atheists may disagree with this first premise, it would seem the burden of proof rests on their shoulders. As Douglas Groothuis points out, “All we need for a legitimate and successful argument form is that the premise be more likely than its denial.”[15] Certainly, “Whatever begins to exist has a cause” is more likely than, “Whatever begins to exist does not have a cause.”

The Universe Began to Exist

We will have to spend more time defending this second premise. Of course, Christianity has always claimed that the universe had a beginning, because the Bible tells us so. However, various ideas concerning the universe have existed over the years. Certain Greek philosophers, such as the Stoics, believed that the world went through cycles of destruction and regeneration. So, even before the rise of science, some people thought the universe was eternal.

Scientific evidence

At the beginning of the twentieth century, most scientists thought that the universe was eternal, with no beginning and no end. According to such a thought, the universe was in a fixed state. Scientifically, this created some problems, as people wondered how the force of gravity did not compel the universe to contract and collapse upon itself. However, no alternative hypotheses presented themselves.

However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, scientific evidence began to reveal that the universe did have, in fact, a beginning. In 1913, Vesto Melvin Slipher, an American astronomer, discovered that several galaxies within the range of his telescope appeared to be traveling away from the earth at incredible speeds—sometimes up to two million miles an hour.[16] Slipher presented his findings at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in 1914. In the audience was Edwin Hubble, who would later be an instrumental figure in observing the expansion of the universe.

A few years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity in 1916. This theory chiefly concerns gravity. Einstein was trying to provide a mathematical model for a static universe, one that was not expanding. Privately, a Dutch astronomer named William de Sitter realized that these equations predicting an expanding universe, one in which galaxies were moving farther away from one another. However, it was World War I and communications were interrupted.

It turns out that Einstein had made a mathematical error in his equation—at one point he divided by zero, something you cannot do. This error was observed by Alexander Friedmann, a Russian mathematician. (George Lemaitre, a Belgian astronomer, independently made the same observation later.) By 1923, Einstein admitted his mistake. He would later call it the greatest mistake of his life.[17] Apparently, he made this mistake because he didn’t want there to be a universe with a beginning. “He was disturbed by the idea of a Universe that blows up, because it implied that the world had a beginning.”[18] Surely, this was because such a beginning implied a Creator.

By 1925, Slipher had recorded the velocities of 42 galaxies that were moving away from the earth. “These accomplishments placed Slipher in the ranks of the small group of men who have, by accident or design, uncovered some element of the Great Plan.”[19]

At this time, Hubble was working at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles, the home of a 100-inch telescope, the most powerful instrument of its kind at that time. (Slipher only had a 24-inch telescope at his disposal.) Hubble and his assistant, Milton Humason, were able to see galaxies that were up to 100 million light years away. (A light year is the distance light can travel in one year, moving at the speed of 186,000 miles per second. This calculates to roughly six trillion miles.) This powerful telescope showed that these galaxies were very large, though they appear small because they are at a great distance from earth. He started to judge their distance by the brightness of the stars: a brighter star meant the galaxy was closer; the more dim the star, the farther away the galaxy was.

After calculating the distance of the galaxies, he was able to figure out how fast they moved. He discovered something amazing, known as Hubble’s law: the farther a galaxy is, the faster it moves. This revealed that all of space was expanding, not just the stars. This is hard for us to imagine, but this same law is at work in expanding balloons. Imagine taking a balloon and putting stickers on it, each sticker one inch apart from the other. Now you blow up the balloon. Even though all the stickers begin one inch apart, as the balloon expands, the stickers that are farther away actually move faster. That way, they retain their relative position on the expanding balloon.

Robert Jastrow explains this same phenomenon using the example of a lecture hall. Imagine the seats are spaced apart evenly by a distance of three feet. Now imagine the lecture hall rapidly doubles its size. If you are in the middle of the hall, some neighbors are now six feet. “However, a person on the other side of the hall, who was originally at a distance from you of, say, 300 feet, is now 600 feet away. In the interval of time in which your close neighbors moved three feet farther away, the person on the other side of the hall increased his distance from you by 300 feet. Clearly, he is receding at a faster speed.”[20]

The way that Slipher, Hubble, and Humason were able to measure the speeds of the galaxies is quite fascinating. They noticed that as a galaxy moved away from the earth, its color became redder. This is called the red shift. Jastrow explains:

The effect occurs because light is a train of waves in space. When the source of the light moves away from the observer, the waves are stretched or lengthened by the receding motion. The length of a light wave is perceived by the eye as its color; short waves create the sensation that we call “blue,” while long waves create the sensation of “red.” Thus, the increase in the length of the light waves coming from a receding object is perceived as a reddening effect.[21]

This red shift was measured by attaching a prism-like device to the telescope. This would show the light from the moving galaxy in a band of colors, a spectrum. This spectrum was recorded on a photographic plate, which was then compared to a nonmoving source of light. Essentially, the inherent brightness of the star was measured against the apparent distance of the star. The distance between the two revealed the distance of the star. (A more precise way of measuring the distance was provided by Enjar Hertzsprung, who used a method of triangulation to compare stars in our galaxy with more distant stars.[22])

All of this revealed an important fact: the universe is rapidly expanding. It is not static. Judging from the current rate of expansion and extrapolating this data backwards would suggest that at one point the universe was very small and very dense. It would also suggest that the universe expanded from a single point roughly 15 billion years ago.

Of course, we don’t have astronomical records that date back that far. But astronomers do have something very old to look at: the light generated by stars. Consider this: the light emitted from the sun takes a little over eight minutes to reach the earth. (The sun is about 93 million miles away from the earth and light travels at 186,000 miles per second, which means it takes eight minutes and 19 seconds for the light of the sun to reach us.) If we dare to look briefly at the sun, we are not seeing the sun as it currently is. We are seeing the sun as it was a little over eight minutes ago. When we look at more distant stars, we see them not as they are now, but as they were thousands or even millions of years ago. “The farther out we look in space, the farther back we see in time.”[23]

Hubble was able to plot the distance and speeds of many galaxies on a graph. Once again, the farther away the galaxy, the faster it moved. The galaxies and speeds charted on the graph were plotted along a straight line. Follow that line back a theoretical 20 billion years and you get to the Big Bang. In addition to this measurement, Allan Sandage and Gustav Tammann, who built on Hubble’s work, have also measured the age of the universe by testing the age of globular clusters in our galaxy. “Globular clusters are large clusters of stars that were formed when the Universe was about one billion years old, shortly after the Galaxy itself had condensed out of the primordial gases. The age of these clusters is approximately 14 billion years old.”[24] That means the universe is 15 billion years old. The difference between these two figures shows that the expansion of the universe has slowed down a bit over time.

The evidence of an expanding evidence lead to an inevitable conclusion: the universe had a beginning. But many scientists did not like that conclusion, for nonscientific and philosophical reasons. That is, they didn’t want there to be a beginning of space (and time, which functions as a fourth dimension), because that would suggest evidence for God. Three British astronomers, Thomas Gold, Hermann Bondi, and Fred Hoyle, developed the steady state theory in 1948. They conceded that the universe is expanding, but they argued that the universe is still eternal. They claimed that new material could be created continuously out of nothing in the empty spaces of the universe. It is a far-fetched theory based on philosophy, not science. As Edgar Andrews writes, “For entirely philosophical reasons, they were allergic to the idea of a ‘big bang’ origin.”[25]

Other evidence that pointed to a Big Bang also shot down the steady state theory. (It should be noted that Hoyle coined that term, “Big Bang,” around 1950. In his view, it was a derogatory term.) At the end of World War II, physicists Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman, working with George Gamow, predicted that a cosmic explosion would “have been filled with an intense radiation in the first moments following the explosion.”[26] This radiation would be similar to that of a hydrogen bomb. If the universe “banged” into existence, this radiation should be found on the edge of space, in a cooled and harmless form. In other words, there should be evidence of this hot, dense explosion.

In 1965, two physicists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working at the Bell Telephone Labs, found this cosmic background radiation. They were working on a satellite designed to detect microwave radiation and they found that such radiation was coming to earth from all directions of space. They found the very thing one would expect to find if the Big Bang actually happened.

There are further lines of evidence that support a Big Bang. These include the elements found in the universe. A Big Bang theory predicts that 30 minutes after the explosion, 25 percent of the matter in the universe would have been helium. (The initial explosion featured only hydrogen, the lightest and simplest element. When hydrogen molecules combine, they can form heavier elements.) By measuring the helium found in the oldest stars, scientists find that they consist of approximately 25 percent helium. The Big Bang model also shows how the hydrogen could lead to all of the other elements in the universe. (Burning hydrogen produces other elements like carbon, oxygen, and aluminum. Supernovae—exploding stars—spray material into space that combines with fresh hydrogen to form the other elements.)

In 1992, the Cosmic Background explorer, a satellite, discovered more ripples of cosmic radiation. George Smoot, leader of this project, said, “What we found is evidence for the birth of the universe. . . . It’s like looking at God.”[27] This discovery confirmed what Penzias and Wilson discovered in 1965. It also confirmed evidence reported in 1990 that showed that the temperature of this background radiation was very cold, about three degrees above absolute zero (or 3° Kelvin or -270° Celsius). This temperature was also very uniform throughout the universe. This shows that the entropy of the universe is very large. Entropy is the measure of disorder in a system. In this case, it describes the amount of heat that has dissipated. A low entropy system is a very hot, very ordered system (the hot and dense matter that exploded in the Big Bang). A high entropy system is increasingly disordered and increasingly cooler. Only a cosmic explosion could account for the massive amount of entropy found in our universe.

The entropy found in our universe also supports the idea that the universe is not eternal. The dissipation of heat throughout the universe from the time of the cosmic explosion until now shows that the universe is not eternal. If the universe were eternal, all the energy of the universe would have dissipated and the universe would reach “heat death” by now. This is the way Douglas Groothuis summarizes this argument:

1. If the universe were eternal and its amount of energy finite, it would have reached heat death by now.

2. The universe has not reached heat death (since there is still energy available for use).

3. Therefore, (a) the universe is not eternal.

4. Therefore, (b) the universe had a beginning.

5. Therefore, (c) the universe was created by a first cause (God).[28]

Let’s summarize the evidence:

1. Astronomers such as Silpher and Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding.

2. The equations of Einsteins’s theory of general relativity, when solved properly, suggest that the universe had a beginning (“t=0, a first moment of time, when everything was compressed into a point with no dimensions”[29]).

3. The cosmic background radiation found in the later twentieth century confirms the Big Bang hypothesis.

4. Entropy supports the idea of a finite universe.

All this evidence certainly points to God. Hugh Ross explains:

The big bang together with the equations of general relativity tell us there must be a simultaneous beginning for all the matter, energy, and even the space-time dimensions of the universe. This beginning occurred only a few billion years ago and places the cause of the universe outside, that is, independent of, matter, energy, space, and time. Theologically this means that the Cause of the universe is independent of and transcendent to the universe. The Christian faith is the only religion among the belief systems of humankind that teaches such a doctrine about the Creator.[30]

When Penzias won the Nobel Prize in 1978 (along with Wilson), he said, “The best data we have concerning the big bang are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.”[31]

Stephen Hawking, a British physicist who essentially holds atheistic views, realized what the Big Bang meant. “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end; it would simply be. What place then for a creator?”[32]

Hawking, realizing what a universe with a beginning entailed (the presence of a creator) came up with a different idea of how the universe (one without beginning or boundaries). It is too complicated to recount here, but the key element was an evasion of a singularity, a moment of creation or beginning of the universe. But the only way to make this work was to insert imaginary numbers into Einstein’s equation to yield a universe that has no boundaries. An imaginary number is the square root of a negative number. However, this number cannot exist in reality. (The square root of 4 is 2 or -2. But you cannot have a square root of -4, not with real numbers, anyway.)

Atheistic scientists have tried to dodge the beginning of the universe in other ways.[33] The oscillating model suggests that the universe has been in an infinite Big Bang-Big Crunch cycle. In other words, the universe continually expands and contracts. This would require the universe to stop expanding at a certain point and then start contracting upon itself, reversing the Big Bang until the universe was once again incredibly dense. But there is no evidence that the universe will stop expanding.

There are many different theories that suggest that there are other universes out there and that ours is one of many (the multiverse theory) or that our universe is the product of an infinite regress of universes. For example, the “baby universe” theory can be explained this way: “It has been conjectured that black holes may be portals of wormholes through which bubbles of false vacuum energy can tunnel to spawn expanding baby universes, whose umbilical cords to our universe may eventually snap as the wormholes close up, leaving the baby universe an independently existing spacetime.”[34] That is science fiction, not science, and no data support such a view.

If there were such a thing as a multiverse, a collection of potentially infinite universes, we would have no way of knowing they exist. And even if they did, we would still have to account for their origins. As Andrews observes, “There is not the slightest scientific evidence—or any other kind of evidence if you rule out UFOs—to support the multiverse concept. It can never be more than an inference from scientific data. It might or might not be true, but that is something we shall never know.”[35]

Because other hypotheses are not rooted in science or reality, we can safely assume the Big Bang hypothesis is the most accurate scientific account for the beginning of the universe. However, it doesn’t really tell us how or why the universe was started. We need God to tell us that. Let us consider the words of Jastrow, an agnostic:

A sound explanation may exist for the explosive birth of our Universe; but if it does, science cannot find out what the explanation is. The scientist’s pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation.

This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning God created heaven and earth. To which St. Augustine added, “Who can understand this mystery or explain it to others?” The development is unexpected because science has had such extraordinary success in tracing the chain of cause and effect backward in time. We have been able to connect the appearance of man on this planet to the crossing of the threshold of life on the earth, the manufacture of the chemical ingredients of life within stars that have long since expired, the formation of those stars out of the primal mists, and the expansion and cooling of the parent cloud of gases out of the cosmic fireball.

Now we would like to pursue that inquiry farther back in time, but the barrier to further progress seems insurmountable. It is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement, or another theory; at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.[36]

A philosophical argument

In addition to the scientific evidence that supports a beginning to the universe, there is one philosophical argument that comports with the beginning of the universe. This argument is hard to grasp, but it essentially questions the possibility of an infinite universe. If there were no beginning to the universe, then the universe would be an actual infinite number of years (or months or days, etc.) old. However, an actual infinite does not actually exist in reality. (We can say the same thing about the number of causes and effects in the universe. There must be an actual number, not an actual inifinity.

We must differentiate a potential infinite from an actual infinite. A potential infinite is a series of numbers that has a beginning and keeps increasing but never reaches an upper limit. You can simply keep adding one to this number. This verse from “Amazing Grace” proves that point:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we’ve first begun.[37]

Why will we have no less days? Because we can simply add one more to our number as our potentially infinite number of days increases.

An actual infinite, however, consists of an actual number. It belongs to theoretical mathematics and set theory, not to real life. Imagine you had this actual infinite number. Then you divided it in half. What would you have? Would you still have an infinite number, or half of infinity? Of course, you cannot divide infinity by half. If time were actually infinite (with no beginning and no end), we would never arrive at “now.” Perhaps it is easier to think of this in distance. As Groothuis writes, “We can neither count from one to infinity nor count down from infinity to one. There is always an infinite distance to travel, so we never arrive.”[38]

Similarly, we could never have an infinite series of causes, because there needs to be a first cause that set the series in motion. There cannot be a chain of cause and effects (imagine them in a circle, so each cause has a previous cause and a subsequent effect, with no discernible beginning or end). The reason for this is because some cause would ultimately have to cause itself, or the chain would never exist in the first place.

Therefore, the universe cannot actually be infinite or eternal. Only God can be eternal, without beginning or ending, because he is beyond time and space. It is important to note that existence can be potentially infinite, because it has a beginning. Christians had a time when they came into existence, but they will never cease to exist.

Can God be eternal, then? Of course. When God created the universe, he created time in a physical sense. It would seem that at that time he created the laws of physics and mathematics and all other natural laws. Before that moment, God existed (he always has), but not in a way that is differentiated into moments, hours, days, or years. We must remember that God is not bound by his creation, including time.

Therefore, The Universe Has a Cause

It seems that the two premises of the argument are true. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause, and the universe began to exist at one point. Therefore, the universe must have had a cause. But does this mean that cause is necessarily God?

The Cause of the Universe is God

Let us consider the nature of this cause. This entity must transcend space and time. The cause must be beginningless and uncaused. Ockham’s Razor dictates the simplest answer, which means we should not have two or more uncaused causes (such as multiple gods). This entity must be extremely powerful, able to create something out of nothing. There would be no way of detecting this first cause through science, because it stands outside of space and time, and therefore must be immaterial. We will learn from the design argument that the universe is full of information, seemingly the product of intelligence, which must come from a mind, which means this entity must be personal. If the cause is not personal, then it is impersonal, and it seems incredible to think that an impersonal force could create persons.

Of course, these attributes belong to the true, living God we read about in the Bible. Judaism and Islam could also use this argument, as could deists. We have already seen problems in the deist’s worldview, and we will address other religions such as Judaism and Islam at a later time. For now, we must content ourselves with the knowledge that the cosmological argument shows that there must be a God. Other arguments, particularly from Scripture, reveal the character and nature of the true God.

Possible Objection from Christians

At this point, I want to address a very real issue. Some Christians might feel uncomfortable using this argument, because it relies on scientific evidence that shows that the universe is billions of years old. Some people think that such a position is not compatible with the Bible. I understand this concern and appreciate it. Much can be said about how Genesis 1 relates to the age of the universe, but for now, I will say that I don’t think the Big Bang theory contradicts what the Bible actually says. Many evangelical Christians would agree with me. However, to understand how science and the Bible interact will require an in-depth study of what the Bible says about the age of God’s creation.

It should be enough to say right now that the Big Bang does not necessarily support macro-evolution, or what we might now call neo-Darwinism. It does not support a universe that has come into existence through material or natural causes. After all, the Big Bang theory suggests that at the beginning of the universe, some infinitely dense ball of hydrogen came, well, out of nowhere. Only God could account for that.

Scientific truth will never contradict the truth of the Bible, because both the Bible and the universe declare the glory of God to us. Remember that Psalm 19:1 states, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Day and night “speak” of God (Ps. 19:2-6). Romans 1:18-20 also says that nature reveals some of God’s attributes. The revelation found in nature is assumed to be true, because the ungodly and unrighteous men suppress the truth and exchange it for a lie (Rom. 1:18, 25). So if scientists, using actual data, acquired and honestly and interpreted rightly, will never come up with information that contradicts that which is in the Bible.

Notes

  1. C. Stephen Evans, Why Believe? Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 34.
  2. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008). See chapter 8, “The Clues of God.”
  3. Ibid., 126-27.
  4. C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 140.
  5. Winfried Corduan, “The Cosmological Argument,” in Reasons for Faith, edited by Norman L. Geisler and Chad V. Meister (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 202.
  6. Kalām is an Arabic word for “speech.”
  7. Al-Ghazālī, Kitab al-Igtisad fi’l-I’tiqad, quoted in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 96.
  8. This is the way Douglas Groothuis frames the argument in Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 214. He is borrowing from the work of Craig in Reasonable Faith, 111-56.
  9. Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 58.
  10. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, edited by Paul Edwards (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), 6-7. Similarly, Daniel Dennett asks, “What caused God?” in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), 242, quoted in Craig, Reasonable Faith, 114.
  11. Corduan, “The Cosmological Argument,” 204.
  12. Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 135, quoted in Craig, Reasonable Faith, 112.
  13. Craig, Reasonable Faith, 111.
  14. Ibid., 113.
  15. Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 217.
  16. The information relies heavily on Robert Jastrow’s God and the Astronomers, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton & Company, 1992).
  17. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006), 63.
  18. Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 20.
  19. Ibid., 21. I should point out that Jastrow calls himself an agnostic.
  20. Ibid., 53-54.
  21. Ibid., 55.
  22. Edgar Andrews, Who Made God? (Carlisle, PA: EP Books, 2009), 102.
  23. Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 61.
  24. Ibid., 64.
  25. Andrews, Who Made God?, 99.
  26. Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 69.
  27. Associated Press, “U.S. Scientists Find a ‘Holy Grail’: Ripples at Edge of the Universe,” London International Herald Tribune, April 24, 1992, page 1; quoted in Hugh Ross, Creation and Time (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1994), 129.
  28. Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 226.
  29. C. John Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 233.
  30. Ross, Creation and Time, 129.
  31. This was reported in The New York Times, March 12, 1978, quoted in Andrews, Who Made God?, 94.
  32. Stephen J. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988), 140-41.
  33. Craig reviews many of these alternative theories in Reasonable Faith, 128-50.
  34. Ibid., 145.
  35. Andrews, Who Made God?, 209.
  36. Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 106-107.
  37. John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1772). Groothuis uses this example in Christian Apologetics, 217.
  38. Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 219.

Evidence for the Resurrection

The following is a longer version of a case for the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. You can read a shorter version here. You can learn more about Jesus’ death and resurrection by visiting https://wbcommunity.org/crucifixion and https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection-resources.

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 Son of God, the Messiah, truly God and truly man? If he had remained in the grave, how would we know that 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; notice also the presence of all three Persons in the Trinity in that verse).[1] In that way, the resurrection proves who Jesus is and demonstrates that he reigns in power.

Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). According to theologian Wayne Grudem, “By raising Christ from the dead, God the Father was in effect saying that he approved of Christ’s work of suffering and dying for our sins, that his work was completed, and that Christ no longer had any need to remain dead. There was no penalty left to pay for sin, no more wrath of God to bear, no more guilt of liability to punishment—all had been completely paid for, and no guilt remained.”[2] Similarly, Tim Keller writes, “Jesus had risen, just as he told them he would. After a criminal does his time in jail and satisfies the sentence, the law has no more claim on him and he walks out free. Jesus Christ came to pay the penalty for our sins. That was an infinite sentence, but he must have satisfied it fully, because on Easter Sunday he walked out free. The resurrection was God’s way of stamping paid in full right across history so that nobody could miss it.”[3]

When Jesus rose from the grave, he rose as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). That means that his resurrection insures ours. Though Jesus is the only one to be resurrected so far in history (as opposed to revivified, which is what happened to Lazarus and a handful of others who were brought back to life, only to die again), all who are united to Christ by faith will be raised in the future when Jesus returns. Like Jesus, we will have an immortal, glorified body, one that cannot get sick and die. This is the great hope for Christians everywhere. The resurrection shos 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.

Unfortunately for us, we can’t go back and time and see what happened. Like any historical event, we don’t have access to it. And like all historical events before the advent of photography and video, we can’t see it. Sometimes we have physical, archaeological evidence; sometimes we do not. Often, we must rely solely on the reporting of eyewitnesses and ancient historians. Fortunately for us, there is excellent evidence that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is an historical event. In order to understand this evidence, we’ll look at various sources, and then conclude what historical facts can be known about the death and literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus. There are three broad categories of sources: the New Testament, extra-biblical Christian writings, and non-Christian historical documents.

Why We Can Trust the New Testament

The best sources for knowing Jesus are the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. It would be a mistake to say that the New Testament is one witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Rather, the New Testament consists of twenty-seven separate documents, written by nine different authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, the unknown author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude). These authors did not sit down together and decide what they were going to write about. In other words, they didn’t conspire to write a myth or a legend, something they knew to be false. Rather, each one wrote, independently of the others, about what they had seen and heard, and what God revealed to them. We know that they didn’t write together because sometimes they had significant disagreements, as can be seen in Galatians 2:11.

The amazing thing is that these authors produced a very cohesive, unified document. And they did this while writing at different times, from different places, to different locations. This is what James White calls “multifocality.”[4] If the authors of these books were not inspired by God to write these books, they would not be so unified in thought. To understand the importance of having multiple witnesses writing in multiple locations, to multiple destinations, at various times, we can compare the origin of the New Testament to the origin of the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon and other works that Joseph Smith wrote. The story of the Qur’an is that the angel Gabriel supposedly appeared to Muhammad and revealed certain teachings, which he recited to his community. These teachings were memorized and written down after Muhammad’s death. Similarly, Joseph Smith claimed to receive a message from an angel, who revealed to him golden plates that only he could read, through the assistance of “seer stones.” He then translated the “Reformed Egyptian” of those plates into English. These stories are rather suspicious because they both involve one man and an angel. By contrast, the New Testament was written by several men, who saw God in the flesh. Jesus had a public ministry, died in public, and appeared to many individuals after his resurrection.

I should also add that we are quite certain that all of the books of the New Testament were written in the first century A.D.[5] Most of the New Testament was likely written before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.[6] It is also important to know that various other “gospels” such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas come from the second century or later. Additionally, we should observe that the authors of the New Testament were some of the original twelve disciples (Matthew, John, Peter), two of Jesus’ brothers (James, Jude), an apostle to whom the risen Jesus appeared (Paul), and those closely related to the apostles. Mark was closely related to Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and tradition states that his Gospel is based on Peter’s recollections. Mark also travelled with Paul (Acts 12:25; 13:5). Luke was another of Paul’s travel companions (see the “we” passages in Acts, which was written by Luke, beginning with Acts 16:10). Both Mark and Luke are mentioned by name in Colossians 4 (verses 10 and 14, respectively) and 2 Timothy 4:11. We don’t know who the author of Hebrews is, but he surely had access to the apostles, for he mentions Timothy, who was the disciple of Paul (Hebrews 13:23).

In addition to the above observations, we can test the historical reliability of the New Testament using three criteria.[7] The first is bibliographical test, which seeks to confirm whether the text we now have is an accurate representation of the original New Testament books. (Bear in mind that these books were written by hand, and copied by hand, until the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century. We don’t have the original copies—the autographs—of these books, but that is no cause for concern, since we don’t have the original copy of any book from the ancient world.) The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of parts or all of the New Testament, more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.[8]

Now, that may not seem very impressive, but let us compare these figures to other historical works of the same era The Roman historian Tacitus’s two major works, the Histories and the Annals were written around A.D. 100, and they exist in incomplete form in only two manuscripts from the ninth and the eleventh centuries. We have only eight manuscripts of History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the fifth century B.C., and the oldest manuscript is dated around A.D. 900, some thirteen hundred years later. Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 B.C., and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates to around nine hundred years later.[9] The New Testament is the best-attested collection of documents from antiquity. This fact doesn’t prove that the content of these books is historically accurate, but it does give us confidence that we have access to the content of the original New Testament documents. These thousands of manuscripts assist those in textual criticism, the practice of removing transcription errors from manuscripts until the original content is restored.

The second test is the internal test: do the documents claim to be history? Luke claims that his Gospel was written on the basis of eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4), and the sequel to this book, Acts, picks up where the first book left off. Peter and John also claim to report what they have personally witnessed (2 Peter 1:16-18; 1 John 1:1-3) and Paul states that the gospel he taught was received through a revelation by Jesus and confirmed by visiting Peter and James in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:11-19).

The third test is external: are the contents of the New Testament verified through other writings and through archaeological evidence? The writings of the early Church Fathers, as well as non-Christian historians such as Josephus and Tacitus, confirm some of the details of the New Testament. While we do not have archaeological evidence for every event in the New Testament, there is no such evidence that refutes what we read in its pages. Many of the historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet.[10] New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13-28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[11] Additionally, precise locations in Jerusalem mentioned in John’s Gospel, such as the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) and the pool of Siloam (John 9:7) have been discovered, revealing that John had a very accurate knowledge of Jerusalem.

Two more observations about Scripture: The Bible stands up to the criterion of embarrassment, a test that is used to determine whether a document is reliable. If a text has potentially embarrassing details, it is assumed that they are reported because the author is committed to telling the truth and is not concerned with how the truth might appear. Many of the great figures in the Bible, from Moses to David to disciples like Peter, are depicted as very flawed individuals. This is particularly true of the disciples, who are shown to be dim-witted (Mark 9:32; Luke 18:34; John 12:16), not concerned about Jesus (they fall asleep while he is praying to God the Father—Mark 14:32-41), wrong in their theology (Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan”—Mark 8:33), and cowardly, fleeing from Jesus when he is arrested (Matt. 26:56) and denying knowing him (Matt. 26:69-75). The way Jesus is depicted could be construed as embarrassing, for he is called “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21), a “drunkard” (Matt. 11:19), demon-possessed (John 7:20; 8:48), and “insane” (John 10:20). (To be clear, Jesus was none of these things, but he was—and is—often misunderstood.) Add to these potentially embarrassing some very difficult teachings of Jesus, and it is very hard to imagine anyone fabricating this story.

The second additional observation about Scripture is that the Gospels and Acts seem to be historical reporting. It is true that these books contain amazing details, such as Jesus supernaturally multiplying food, raising people from the dead, casting out demons, and so forth. Yet the Gospels and Acts show amazing restraint, even as they report such details. One only need compare these books to later works like the Gospel of Peter to see the difference between historical reporting and fantastical legend. Those who have studied the Gospels and Greco-Roman biographies (bioi) have recognized similarities between the two.[12] C. S. Lewis put it this way: “All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I’m prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are legends or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.”[13]

So, the New Testament claims to be history, has external evidence to support its claims, is the best-attested collection of documents in ancient history, has details no one would make up, and appears to be historical reporting. What does it say about Jesus’ resurrection?

Evidence from the New Testament

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 practice of crucifixion is well attested in various Roman histories.[14] Death on a cross was reserved for the worst criminals, and it was carried out by Roman soldiers who knew how to kill. The four Gospels leave no doubt that Jesus died.

The Gospels also 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). His body bore the wounds of crucifixion (Luke 24:40; John 20:20, 27). He even ate with them and prepared breakfast for them (Luke 24:41-43; John 21:12-14). Ghosts or hallucinations can’t be touched and they can’t eat, let alone cook breakfast. 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).

A summary of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances is as follows:

1. Mary Magdalene (John 20:10-18)

2. Mary and the other women (Matt. 28:1-10)

3. Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5)

4. two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-15)

5. ten apostles (Luke 24:36-39)

6. eleven apostles (John 20:24-31)

7. seven apostles (John 21)

8. all of the apostles (Matt. 28:16-20)

9. five hundred disciples (1 Cor. 15:6)

10. James (1 Cor. 15:7)

11. again to all the apostles (Acts 1:4-8)

12. the apostle Paul (Acts 9:1-9; 1 Cor. 15:8; 9:1).[15]

The last person on that list is the apostle Paul. He had a very unique encounter with Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus (Acts 9). Additionally, Paul witnesses to the resurrection several times in his letters. What is interesting is that many of Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels, and various New Testament scholars believe that even within these letters, Paul uses teachings that date to the first few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

For example, Paul wrote the letter to the Romans around A.D. 55-58. Jesus most likely died in A.D. 30, though many believe the year was 33. (Given the data we have, either year is possible.) Within twenty-five years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul wrote this letter. At the beginning of the letter, he writes:

who was born from the seed of David according to the flesh;
who was declared the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead. (Romans 1:3b-4a)

Because of the language used here (in the original Greek), many scholars believe Paul is quoting an early creed or hymn regarding Jesus, one that goes back to the earliest years of Christianity. The parallel structure of the lines (there are two parallel relative clauses; “who was born/who was declared” are both aorist participles in the genitive case in Greek; both lines have “according to”) as well as other details in the language indicate that this was an early hymn from the church in Jerusalem and was approved by the apostles Peter, James, and John.[16]

In a similar way, Paul passes on to the Corinthians an early teaching regarding the resurrection that he most likely received from the Jerusalem apostles. This passage is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas,
then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time,
(most of whom are still alive, although some have fallen asleep).
Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

I have arranged the text in such a way as to bring out its parallel structure. Notice there are four “that” phrases and four “then” phrases (ὅτι and εἶτα/ἔπειτα, respectively, in the Greek). Paul also uses technical terms (“delivered” and “received”) to indicate that this teaching was a tradition that he received from others. This letter was written in A.D. 54 or 55, but this particular teaching is even closer to the resurrection. Given that Paul converted to Christianity within a few short years after Jesus’ death,[17] and that he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem three years later (Gal. 1:18), it seems quite possible that Paul received this early teaching regarding the resurrection from eyewitnesses, four to six years after the event took place.[18]

It is important to observe the early dates of these teachings because there have been many skeptics who claim that the teachings of Christianity are myths that developed over time. They may grant that Jesus was a real person who died by crucifixion. But these skeptics claim that Jesus’ followers invented many elements of the Gospels, including his resurrection. However, these early teachings show that the resurrection of Jesus was taught from the beginning, and that it was not a legend created by subsequent generations.

We should also note that both Romans and 1 Corinthians were public letters, meant to be read aloud to a broad audience (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2). Paul mentions several resurrection witnesses in 1 Corinthians including Peter (or Cephas, the Aramaic rendering of his name), “the twelve” (the corporate title of the original disciples of Jesus, though the actual number was eleven, since Judas committed suicide after betraying Jesus), James, and five hundred others, many of whom are still alive some twenty-five years later. Paul is indicating that if people have questions about whether the resurrection actually happened, they can go talk to these witnesses. (There are several individuals, some of whom served as minor figures in the Gospels, who are named quite specifically in those books. It is believed that the naming of so many people was one way that the Gospel writers sought to authenticate their biographies of Jesus.)

Paul’s writings, his sermons in Acts, and claims of the Gospels all attest to some basic facts regarding Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. William Lane Craig provides the following table to help us see that fact.[19]

1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Acts 13:28-31 Mark 15:37-16:7
Christ died . . . Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.
he was buried . . . they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tom And he [Joseph] bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb.
he was raised . . . But God raised him from the dead . . . “He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.”
he appeared . . . . . . and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

The New Testament is well-attested, its contents are verified by external sources, it contains teachings that come from years right after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and it circulated quickly throughout the Roman Empire. Additionally, there are no contemporary non-Christian writings that state that this Jesus did not exist, or that he did not die, or that he did not rise again. If there were evidence contradicting the claims of Christianity, it could have been brought to the light, and Christianity never would have survived. If there was a tomb that contained Jesus’ remains, this evidence could have easily refuted the preaching of the apostles. However, no such evidence exists. However, we do have some evidence from non-Christians that tells us about Jesus.

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. We do not know the exact time when Clement lived, but he was bishop of Rome at the end of the first century. It is possible that he is the Clement mentioned in Philippians 4:3 (written by Paul around A.D. 60) and it is also possible that he knew Peter. 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.”[20] Later, he writes, “The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand.”[21] This letter was written perhaps before A.D. 70, though the traditional date is A.D. 95-97. Either way, we have another witness to the resurrection from within seventy years of Jesus’ death.

Another early Christian witness to the resurrection is Polycarp (c. A.D. 69-c. 155, according to traditional dates). He died for the Christian faith at the age of 86. In his Epistle to the Philippians, written around A.D. 110, he writes these strong words: “‘For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;’ and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.”[22] Clearly, Polycarp thought the resurrection was of first importance. Irenaeus, a Church Father of the second century, claimed that Polycarp was taught by the apostles, particularly John.[23] Therefore, his testimony is based on eyewitnesses such as John.

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. A.D. 37-c. 100) lived in Palestine, was a Pharisee, and was involved in the Jewish War against Rome, which began in A.D. 66. After being captured by the Romans, he joined their side and became a Roman citizen. It was after this time that he wrote his histories of the war and of the Jewish people. Josephus twice mentions Jesus. One short reference to Jesus comes in his Jewish Antiquities. In describing the martyrdom of James, he states that this apostle was “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”[24] We have no indications that Josephus became a Christian, but he acknowledged that Jesus was called Christ, or Messiah, by some.

There is a longer reference to Jesus in the Antiquities that provides us more information. However, there have been some interpolations added to the text by Christians who desired to possess a stronger historical witness to Jesus. One attempt to recreate Josephus’s actual words is as follows:

At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.[25]

At a minimum, it seems that Josephus was aware that Jesus was regarded as a virtuous wisdom teacher who had disciples, who was crucified, whose disciples did not abandon him, and who was reported to have appeared to his followers. If Jesus had been a false Messiah (and there were several of them) and he had been put to death without rising from the grave, his followers would have abandoned the cause.

The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 56-117) also wrote of Christians and Christ. After a fire broke out in Rome in A.D. 64, people were looking for someone to blame, and even the emperor, Nero, came under suspicion. Tacitus reports of Nero’s blaming the fire on Christians:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt 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 Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[26]

Tacitus traces the origins of Christianity to “Christus,” an obvious reference to Jesus Christ, who lived during the time of the Roman emperor, Tiberius, and who suffered death (“the extreme penalty”) under Pontius Pilate. Notice also that Christianity was “checked for the moment” after Jesus’ death, only to break out again. This detail harmonizes with what we know from the Bible: after Jesus’ death, the disciples were hiding. Even after his resurrection, the disciples did not do any public teaching. The disciples didn’t make much noise in Judea or beyond until after Jesus ascended to heaven and after they received the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Christian proclamation began with Peter’s speech in Acts 2, after which three thousand people came to faith in Jesus. In the final chapter of Acts (Acts 28) Paul is preaching in Rome. The Christian message spread quite quickly in the thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

One more Roman witness will suffice. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61 – c. 112) was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned A.D. 98-117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. At one point, he describes their Christian worship: “They met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.”[27] While this passage, written around A.D. 111, does not speak directly to the historicity of the resurrection, it does show that Christians worshiped Jesus “as to a divinity.” There would be no Christian faith without the resurrection, and Jesus would not be considered divine if he had remained in the tomb.

There are further mentions of Christ or Christianity by other non-Christian writers such as Suetonius, who reports that Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome in A.D. 49 because of disturbances caused by a certain “Chrestus,” again, another reference to Jesus.[28] Apparently tensions between Jews and Christians led to the emperor’s decision to remove Jews from the city, an event also referenced in Acts 18:2. Mara bar Serapion, a Syrian Stoic philosopher writing shortly after A.D. 73, makes a reference to the Jews murdering their “wise king.”[29]

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, Pontius Pilate. The disciples later had claimed that after three days they saw a resurrected Jesus. The Church grew quickly and spread to Rome. And Christianity continues to thrive today.

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 or atheistic bias, or perhaps an anti-supernatural bias (a refusal to believe in the miracles of Jesus, including the resurrection). However, if we consider that Jesus was God in the flesh, why should we suppose that God could not perform miracles? The incarnation (when the Son of God became the God-man, Jesus) is itself a miracle, and a one-time event in history. Why assume that Jesus’ life would not be accompanied by miraculous actions, such as healing the blind, bringing the dead back to life (temporarily, not permanently, as in the resurrection), and rising from the grave, never to die again? It seems more reasonable to assume that if Jesus is God, the one through whom the Father created the universe out of nothing, he would be able to do whatever he wanted to do. If Jesus is God, then we should expect some that historical reporting about his life would be full of amazing and fascinating details. We wouldn’t expect a boring story of highly ordinary events.

Once we allow the Bible to speak for itself, we learn so much more about Jesus. We learn about his identity as the Son of God, the Son of David (through his human lineage), the Messiah, and as God himself. When we allow the Bible to speak, we start to understand so much more about Jesus. We begin to understand that Jesus became man so he could die for our sins. He had to do this because only one who is truly God and truly man could serve as the perfect, eternal sacrifice. He took the penalty for sin that we deserve and in return we are counted righteous because of his moral perfection.

It is interesting to note twelve facts that the vast majority of biblical scholars,who range from conservative Christians to atheists, agree upon. These facts are listed by Gary Habermas, a philosopher and an expert on the resurrection.

1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.

2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb.

3. Soon afterwards, the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent, having lost hope.

4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his interment.

5. The disciples had experiences that they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.

6. Due to these experiences, the disciples’ lives were thoroughly transformed. They were even willing to die for their belief.

7. The proclamation of the Resurrection took place very early, from the beginning of church history.

8. The disciples’ public testimony and preaching of the Resurrection took place in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified and buried shortly before.

9. The gospel message centered on the preaching of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

10. Sunday was the primary day for gathering and worshiping.

11. James, the brother of Jesus and a skeptic before this time, was converted when he believed he also saw the risen Jesus.

12. Just a few years later, Saul of Tarsus (Paul) became a Christian believer, due to an experience that he also believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.[30]

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.

It should be obvious by this point that if the above facts are true, then only a supernatural cause can account for the resurrection, because dead men don’t come back to life through natural causes. Jesus actually died, and was raised back to life by God. As Peter said, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. . . . This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:24, 32). According to Habermas, “That Jesus died and that afterward his early followers thought they saw him again are both held by virtually all critical scholars, including agnostics. Most critical scholars also concede that natural alternative hypotheses are unable to explain these data.”[31] If natural hypotheses fail, then a supernatural hypothesis should be accepted.

Another reason to trust the historicity of the resurrection concerns the Jewish expectation of resurrection. A general resurrection was prophesied in Daniel 12:2: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” However, no one was expecting the resurrection of an individual in the middle of human history. We can see this in John 11, when Jesus is speaking to Martha, the sister of Lazarus, who has recently died. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. She says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:24-25).

Though the resurrection of the “Suffering Servant” is hinted at in Isaiah 53:10-11, and though Jesus told his disciples that he would die and be raised on the third day, it seems that even they did not expect a resurrection. Several of the disciples had doubts (see Matthew 28:16-17; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-25). My point is that the Jewish people were not anticipating the resurrection of the Messiah, and even the disciples were not expecting it. Therefore, it is unlikely that anyone would make up this event.

We can even add that Jews did not expect God to become a man. Their conception of the Messiah was a human, political deliverer. Though they expected God to vindicate them, they could hardly have imagined that God would become a man, and that this God-man would be put to death.

Even though the whole story of Jesus, from the incarnation to his death to his resurrection, seems unexpected, it was prophesied many times in Scripture. The prophecies of Jesus’ death and resurrection are particularly subtle. Two examples are Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.[32] These passages were written roughly one thousand and seven hundred years, respectively, before Jesus’ death and resurrection. If you read these passages, you will see that they point forward to Jesus, but they do so in subtle—not blatant and fictitious—ways.

If the resurrection of Jesus were a tale that someone created, then the first witnesses of the empty tomb and of Jesus would not be women. The Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland observes: “In first-century Judaism, a woman’s testimony was virtually worthless. A woman was not allowed to give testimony in a court of law except on rare occasions. No one would have invented a story and made women the first witnesses to the empty tomb. . . . The fact is included in the Gospels because the Gospels are attempting to describe what actually happened.”[33] If someone made this story up, he or she would have had respected men be the first witnesses, not a group of women.

Another argument is the transformation of the disciples. Reading through the Gospels, one gets the sense that they are sincere but rather thick-headed. When Jesus was arrested, they all fled (Matthew 26:56). Jesus had selected a bunch of “nobodies.” In the eyes of the Sanhedrin, the court of Jewish leaders, the disciples were “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13). Yet these men were transformed into bold witnesses to Jesus, willing to die for their faith. (In fact, many of them did die for their faith.) What could account for this transformation, other than the resurrection of Jesus (and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit)?

In a similar fashion, there is the conversion of Saul/Paul from a Pharisee who helped persecute the Church (Acts 7:58; 8:1-3; 9:1-2) to a bold witness for Christ who established churches throughout the Roman Empire and died as a martyr in Rome. Paul’s witnessing of the risen Jesus and his dramatic conversion are told in Acts 9 and alluded to in his letters. In 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Paul called his former self a “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” and the foremost of sinners. What could account for this transformation other than an encounter with the living Christ?

Jesus’ own brothers were also converted to Christianity. During his ministry, they did not believe that he was the Son of God and the Messiah. It is unclear why this is so. Perhaps Mary and Joseph decided not to tell their younger children that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (making Jesus, technically speaking, their half brother). Perhaps they were told that story and still didn’t believe. Their unbelief is reported in Mark 3:20-35; 6:2-6; and John 7:1-5. The Gospels do not lead us to believe that they were among Jesus’ followers or present at his death. Yet in Acts 1:14, after Jesus’ ascension, Mary and Jesus’ brothers are with the disciples. James became the leader of the Jerusalem church and authored the letter bearing his name. Jude also wrote a letter found in the New Testament. Paul tells us that the resurrected Jesus appeared to James (1 Cor. 15:7), and it was perhaps this appearance that was instrumental in his conversion.

Finally, there is the dramatic outgrowth of Christianity from its Jewish roots. Christianity grew out of a religion that had a non-Trinitarian, monotheistic view of God; a heavy emphasis on worship at the temple and on the Sabbath; animal sacrifice; circumcision; strict dietary laws; and many other laws regarding physical purity. Christianity, on the other hand, while still monotheistic, says that the one God exists eternally in three Persons. Christianity taught that Jesus himself was the temple (the dwelling place of God with human beings, the “place” of worship, and the “place” of atonement) and that now the Church is the temple. Christians shifted their day of worship from the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, Sunday, in honor of the day Jesus rose from the grave. Christianity acknowledges that Jesus was the final and ultimate sacrifice for sin, that circumcision is no longer necessary, that all foods are clean, and that other laws regarding what is clean or unclean are no longer in effect. This dramatic change in religion can only be accounted for by something as dramatic as the resurrection.

Objections

There have been a number of objections offered to the resurrection. Those who do not believe in Jesus have offered up alternative explanations for what happened.

One hypothesis is that Jesus’ followers were hallucinating when they had experiences of seeing Jesus after his death. Given the fact that Jesus appeared to several different groups of people several times over a period of forty days, this explanation is hard to believe. When people hallucinate, it is a personal and subjective experience. How could many people have the same hallucination repeatedly? According to Michael Licona, “Since hallucinations are mental events with no external referent, one cannot share in the hallucinations of another.”[34] Additionally, when people hallucinate, they often see what they had previously believed. As we have shown, the disciples were not expecting Jesus to rise from the grave. Furthermore, hallucinations can’t be touched and they usually don’t eat food and cook breakfast!

Some people believe that the witnesses went to the wrong tomb and found it empty. This is not possible because the women saw exactly where Jesus was buried and they returned to the same tomb on the third day. It was also the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin. If a claim that his tomb, which once contained the corpse of Jesus, was empty, it could easily be disproved. A tomb with Jesus’ remains was all that was needed to refute the apostles’ preaching on the resurrection. But no such tomb, and no corpse, was ever found. Habermas states, “The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had the power, motive, and location to investigate thoroughly the proclamation of the resurrection appearances. They knew of Jesus’s [sic] death and his burial. Though they were ideally situated to expose the error, they did not refute the evidence.”[35]

Others have suggested that Jesus didn’t actually die, but only appeared to die on the cross. This explanation is known as the swoon theory. The Qur’an claims as much when it says, “That they [the Jews] said (in boast), ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Apostle of Allah’—but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not— Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.”[36] The Qur’an was written six hundred years after Jesus’ death, and is not, therefore, a reliable witness. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the Qur’an doth protest too much, methinks.

As with the previous explanations, this is extremely unlikely, runs counter to the evidence (even the non-Christian ancient historians believed Jesus died), and is not held by serious scholars today. We must remember that Jesus was severely beaten and scourged before the crucifixion. Scourging was known to tear flesh off a body. Josephus reports a man being whipped until his bones were laid bare.[37] Jesus likely suffered a significant loss of blood on the way to the cross. He was also probably extremely tired and weak from not sleeping all night and not eating since the Last Supper. After he died, it is reported that the Roman soldiers pierced his side to verify his death (John 19:34). In all of ancient history, there is only one report of a person surviving crucifixion. This came when Josephus remembered three of his friends who were crucified. He asked Titus, the Roman commander, to release them. Even after receiving the greatest medical care, two of the three died.[38] By contrast, Jesus was not rescued prior to his death, which was verified by the Roman soldiers (who certainly knew how to kill someone). Even if he were released from the cross prior to dying, he would probably not receive the greatest medical care, and the fact that he already was tired and was scourged would make his survival highly unlikely.

Consider what three medical doctors wrote in an article on the crucifixion in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right rib, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.[39]

If Jesus did not actually die, he would have been sealed in a tomb for roughly thirty-six hours without medical attention, food, or water. Are we to believe he survived over that span of time? Could he have opened the tomb and found the strength to walk to his disciples? To believe such a thing is absurd in light of the evidence.

Some people believe the disciples may have stolen the body. In fact, the Pharisees and the chief priests were worried about this, so they asked Pilate for a guard of soldiers to secure the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66). After Jesus rose, the chief priests bribed the soldiers to spread this lie (Matthew 28:11-15). Interestingly, the Church Fathers Justin Martyr and Tertullian reported that this was still what Jewish leaders were claiming, even into the third century.[40] The idea that the cowardly disciples could get past a contingent of Roman soldiers and open a sealed tomb is rather unbelievable. Equally unbelievable is the idea that they would propagate something they knew to be a lie without anyone one of them confessing the truth under threat of torture or death. Would all of the disciples be willing to die for their faith? Liars make poor martyrs.

Regarding the idea that the resurrection was a myth created by the disciples, consider the words of Blaise Pascal:

The hypothesis that the apostles were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all the powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny this story under these circumstances, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost.[41]

It is hard to believe that the disciples could have conspired to create a story about a resurrection and not yielded to confessing the truth under pressure, persecution, and threats of death. It is harder to believe that many of them, such as Peter, James, and Paul, would have died for a lie.

Other theories have been advanced, such as a substitute (perhaps a secret twin brother?) died on the cross and not Jesus. These theories are equally unbelievable, and no serious scholars—whether atheists or agnostics—maintain them. Lately, it has become popular to say that Jesus didn’t even exist, and that the whole story of Jesus is based on other myths. Given the evidence that we have already examined, it should suffice to say that some people would rather imagine elaborate conspiracies instead of embracing the truth. Many people will not believe the truth regardless of how much evidence has been offered, because they do not want to believe that Jesus is who the Bible says he is.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is impressive. It is one of the best-attested facts in ancient history. The only question left is, Will you believe it?

Notes

  1. All Scripture quoted herein, unless otherwise noted, is taken from the English Standard Version.
  2. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 615.
  3. Timothy Keller, King’s Cross (New York: Dutton, 2011), 219.
  4. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 307.
  5. For information on the dates of the books of the New Testament, see D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).
  6. It is difficult to date most of the books with precision, but analysis of internal and external evidence assists those who try to determine when they were written. Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Paul’s letter, Peter’s letters, and Hebrews were surely written before this time. James seems to have been written as early as the middle or late 40s. Jude was probably written around the 50s or 60s. All of John’s writings (John, 1-3 John, Revelation) were likely written in the 80s and 90s.
  7. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 134.
  8. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 33.
  9. Ibid., 34; Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 135; Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.
  10. On the historical accuracy of Luke, see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1981), 80-93.
  11. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990). These facts are listed in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 256-59.
  12. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 202-04.
  13. C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967, 209, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 311.
  14. For more information on crucifixion, see Martin, Hengel, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, translated by John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
  15. This list is found in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 546. Groothuis says he owes the list to Kenneth Samples, Without a Doubt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 137.
  16. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 220-21.
  17. Paul saw the risen Jesus and converted to Christianity possibly in 32 A.D. or 34 A.D. ), within two years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, according to John B. Polhill, Paul and His Letters (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1999), 80.
  18. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 231.
  19. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 363.
  20. Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 24, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 11.
  21. Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 42, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts et al., 16.
  22. Polycarp of Smryna, The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians 7, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts et al., 34.
  23. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 254.
  24. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 20.200, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987).
  25. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.63-64, quoted in Paul L. Maier, “Did Jesus Really Exist?” in Evidence for God, ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 145.
  26. Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals 15.44, eds. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, < http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44>.
  27. Pliny the Younger, To the Emperor Trajan, < http://www.bartleby.com/9/4/2097.html>.
  28. Suetonius, Claudius 25, <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Suet.+Cl.+25&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0132#>.
  29. “A Letter of Mara, Son of Serapion”, trans. B. P. Pratten, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume VIII: Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, the Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 737.
  30. Gary R. Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, 9-10, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 299-300.
  31. Gary R. Habermas, “The Resurrection and Agnosticism,” in Reasons for Faith: Making a Case for the Christian Faith, ed. Norman L. Geisler and Chad V. Meister (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 292.
  32. There are many websites where you can read the Bible. Good websites include www.biblia.com, www.biblegateway.com, and www.youversion.com.
  33. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 168.
  34. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 484.
  35. Gary R. Habermas, “The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus,” in Evidence for God, ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 175.
  36. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, Surah 4.157-58, Electronic version. (2004).
  37. Josephus, Jewish Wars 6.304.
  38. Josephus, Life 420-21.
  39. William D. Edwards, Welsey J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association 255, no. 11 (March 21, 1986): 1463, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 305.
  40. Gary R. Habermas, “The Empty Tomb of Jesus,” in Evidence for God, ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 170.
  41. Blaise Pascal, Pensées 310/801, ed. and trans. Alban Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1966), 125, quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 558.

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.