The central most claim of the Christian faith is that Jesus rose from the dead. In fact, the resurrection of Jesus is the linchpin of Christianity. Specifically, if Jesus really did rise from the dead, then this would seem to prove that his claims are true, i.e. he was the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world. However, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then as the Apostle Paul once said (paraphrasing): Your faith is futile, and we are still in sin and are to be pitied above all men (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Translation, this resurrection claim is kind of a BIG DEAL! Therefore, in this post I will briefly explore the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus — particularly four key facts.
First, if one is going to make a case for Jesus (or anyone) rising from the dead, one must first establish that said person was actually dead. To that end, it is an indisputable fact that Jesus was executed by crucifixion. Not only do experts and scholars who are Christians attest to this fact, but so too do experts and scholars who are well known skeptics and/or admitted agnostics and atheist. For instance, skeptic James Tabor says:
“I think we need have no doubt that given Jesus’ execution by Roman crucifixion he was truly dead.”
Gerd Ludemann, a professed atheist, has also acknowledged that the historical evidence for Jesus’ execution is “indisputable,” and Bart Ehrman, who is a self-described agnostic with atheist leanings, has publically stated that the death by crucifixion of Jesus is an indisputable fact. There have been many skeptics in the past who have tried to offer alternative explanations, e.g. that Jesus faked his death or passed out on the cross. However, all such claims have been thoroughly discredited. Once more, no expert takes them seriously, so I see no need to respond to them here.
So what evidence leads all scholars and experts across the spectrum to the conclusion that Jesus died by crucifixion? Mainly, that it is reported in multiple sources from antiquity. Besides the New Testament (NT) documents that report the crucifixion of Jesus, we also have a number of non-Christian sources that attest to this fact. For instance, the Roman historian Tacitus records that Jesus “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius.” Mara Bar-Serapion, who was pagan, corroborates that Jesus was executed. The Jewish historian Josephus reported that Pilate had “condemned (Jesus) to be crucified”. Even the Jewish Talmud reports that Jesus was “hanged” which in ancient times referred to a crucifixion. With this fact firmly established, let us now proceed to the next piece of evidence for the resurrection.
Second, it is a fact that the tomb where Jesus’ body was buried after his death was later found to be empty. How can one say this is a fact? The criteria of “multiple source attestation” is a device employed by historians and scholars to verify the authenticity of a purported historical event. What does this mean? An event is considered to be historically authentic if it is recorded in more than one independent source. To that end, the empty tomb story is included in all four Gospel accounts in the first century. Although the scholarly consensus is that Matthew & Luke may have known Mark, and used Mark, or his sources, as a source when recording their own Gospel accounts. However, John shows no dependence on Mark, nor Matthew & Luke for that matter, but is totally independent from the synoptic gospels. Therefore, Mark and John are two early independent works which attest to the account of the empty tomb. Once more, despite Matthew and Luke’s apparent knowledge of Mark, both include unique details concerning the “empty tomb” tradition — what scholars label the “M” and “L” sources. Additionally, while Paul does not specifically mention the “empty tomb” story, he implicitly attest to this in his Letters, saying that Jesus Christ was “buried” and “raised on the third day“ (1 Corinthians 15:4). Moreover, Paul believed firmly in the bodily resurrection, therefore to have a resurrection without an “empty” grave/tomb is incomprehensible. Therefore, that Jesus’ tomb was found empty, or known to be empty, is attested to both explicitly and implicitly in no fewer than five early independent sources.
So how reliable is the evidence for the empty tomb? The fact that women are identified in the Gospels as the first to discover the empty tomb is very significant. To be blunt about it, the testimony of woman was considered worthless in the Jewish culture of ancient times. For instance, Josephus records that “Any evidence which a woman (gives) is not valid.” Thus, if the empty tomb were nothing more than a legend invented by man, its inventors would most certainly not have said it was discovered by women. Plus, these written sources are all early, and based on oral traditions that predate the written accounts. In other words, this makes it very unlikely that the story of the empty tomb was a legend developed by the Church over time, as legends take time to develop, and there simply was just not enough time between Jesus’ death and the origin of the empty tomb tradition for this to take place. But the strongest evidence for establishing the fact of the empty tomb; is that even the enemies of the early Church provide attestation to it. Specifically, the adversaries to early Christians, i.e. those who were hostile to the claim of Jesus’ resurrection, had something very different to say. These skeptics claimed that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus. In other words, even skeptics all conceited this point: the tomb where Jesus’ body was buried was indeed empty. This is not only reported in Matthew, but also by early Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian. That even the enemies of the early Church did not dispute the resurrection by claiming to have produced a body, i.e. that Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, nor allege that his corpse had rotted away on the cross, i.e. that Jesus’ body was never placed in a tomb; is very strong corroborating evidence in favor of the empty tomb claim being authentic. With this fact firmly established, let us now proceed to the next piece of evidence for the resurrection.
Third, it is a fact that there were multiple early eyewitnesses claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to them. Starting with the women who discovered the empty tomb, we know from John’s Gospel that Mary Magdalene was the first eyewitness to the risen Jesus. Although we do not have a firsthand account from Mary, her testimony became widely known. For instance, Celsus, a second century Greek philosopher, and an opponent of Christianity, makes a crude reference to her while attacking the Christian belief in the resurrection, saying “who really saw this? A hysterical woman, as you admit … “. This is significant, in that it demonstrates the testimony of Mary Magdalene to be genuine. Specifically, in Greco-Roman culture, just as with ancient Judaism, the testimony of women was considered worthless. This scornful ridicule by Celsus demonstrates the point that if one was going to invent the story of a risen Jesus in ancient times, they most certainly would not site a woman to have been witness. If, on the other hand, Christians were simply reporting the truth, they would have to tell the whole truth, no matter how socially and culturally inconvenient. John’s Gospel does just that.
Furthermore, Paul’s Letters also provide strong evidence to the numerous eyewitness accounts concerning the resurrection of Jesus. In particular his letters to the Galatians & Corinthians, letters that no scholar disputes he wrote. In Galatians Paul provides a personal account of meeting Jesus’ brother James and his disciples Peter and John, whom he describes as pillars of the faith. Once more, in Corinthians he further testifies to the numerous witnesses of the resurrection, saying:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
This is very significant because Paul’ Letters are all very early, written from 48 AD to 62 AD, and are the earliest Christian sources from antiquity. He testifies to knowing the brother of Jesus, and his disciples; but more importantly, reports the appearances of the risen Jesus, including not only to Peter, the Twelve, and James, but also on one occasion to over five hundred people at the same time – must of whom at the time of his writings were still living. In other words, Paul is saying more or less, do not simply take his word for it, but go speak to these people yourself and they will all corroborate his claims. Additionally, Paul’s use of the words “received” and “passed on” are significant in that they are rabbinical terms used for the handing down of teachings. What Paul is saying, is that what he is presenting are truths that he himself once received. Thus, his comments relaying the facts about Jesus’ resurrection appearances contain one of the earliest creeds of the Church. A creed that most experts say was recited by believers prior to the NT ever having been written. Once more, many scholars believe Paul received this creed from James and Peter themselves while visiting with them in Jerusalem the first time after his conversion. In fact, scholar Gary Habermas has stated:
“Virtually all scholars agree that in this text Paul recorded an ancient tradition about the origins of the Christian gospel” and that “Paul received the formula between two and eight years after the crucifixion.”
Plus, as if Paul’s testimony were not enough, the four NT Gospels provide independent corroboration for most of these appearances reported by Paul. While we are on the topic of the NT Gospels, two, Matthew & John, are reported from multiple early sources to be eyewitness accounts, while the other two, Mark & Luke, by those who knew the Apostles. To that end, all the early extra-biblical testimony unanimously attributes the Gospels to their traditional authors, e.g. Irenaeus, Clement, Tatian, Theophilus, Caius, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Dionysius, Cyprian, Athanasius, Cyril and Eusebius – just to name a few. Heck, even Christian opponents conceded this point, e.g. Celsus, Porphyry and Emperor Julian. Therefore, despite the objections of modern skeptics, we can safely say that in all probability the four NT Gospels were indeed written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — two eyewitnesses and two that knew eyewitnesses. Moreover, all four provide affirmation that Jesus rose from the dead. In sum, there are multiple early independent sources reflecting eyewitness testimonies to the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. That Jesus’ disciples and followers claimed such is NOT disputed among virtually all scholars across the spectrum. For instance, scholar Gerd Ludemann, a well-known atheist as noted earlier, concedes the following:
“It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”
Of course as an atheist Ludemann argues that these experiences were most likely the result of visions or dreams, which I do not find credible. Nevertheless, he is conceding the point that their experiences actually occurred. With this fact firmly established, let us now proceed to the next piece of evidence for the resurrection.
Fourth, it is a fact that even one time foes claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. Specifically, the conversion of the early Church persecutor Saul, who became the Apostle Paul, along with the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother, is highly significant evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Let us start with Paul. We know from multiple sources that Paul, formerly known as Saul from Tarsus, was an enemy of the Christian faith. Once more, he tells us such on multiple occasions from his Letters. For instance he writes:
“I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: ‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they praised God because of me.” (Galatians 1:22-24)
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10)
So why did Paul persecute the early Church so vigorously? He tells us in his writings that he was a devoted Jew, “extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14). With this in mind, we need look no further than the Jewish expectations for the Messiah (Christ) to answer this question. The Messiah, or Christ, means the anointed one of God, whom was expected to save Israel from their enemies. Thus, the Jewish expectation was that the Messiah would be a powerful figure, who would destroy God’s enemies and rule Israel as an anointed King. Therefore, most Jews, including one Saul of Tarsus, rejected the claims of Jesus’ followers. Why? Because Jesus was the opposite of what the messiah was expected to be. Moreover, in the Judaic tradition from Deuteronomy, one who was hung from a tree was said to be under the “curse” of God. Therefore, many Jews would ask: How could this lower class peasant preacher from the backwoods of Galilee, whom caused a scene at the Jewish Temple, and who was literally crucified by the enemies of Israel, actually be the powerful Messiah that was going to save it? Once more, the fact Jesus was crucified, or “hung” by a tree, would suggest to them that he was actually “cursed” by God, and NOT the anointed one – the Christ. This largely explains why Saul (Paul) persecuted the early Church so passionately.
So how did an admitted zealous persecutor of the Church come to faith that Jesus WAS Christ? Paul tells us himself in his Letters that he was converted to a follower of Jesus because he had a personal encounter with the risen Jesus. No doubt, the dominos began to fall into place from there: if Jesus was truly raised from the dead, then he was not cursed by God, but in fact the anointed Son of God (Christ) — and the curse he bore and triumphed over must truly have been ours – thus Jesus Christ has defeated the enemy (sin) and IS the Savior of the world. This new conviction resulted in a reexamination of the sacred scriptures through a new prism. Moreover, there are six ancient sources in addition to Paul – Luke (Acts), Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysius of Corinth and Origen — that report he was willing to suffer and even die for his new beliefs, e.g. that Jesus was the Christ, and the resurrected Son of God. All of this proves that it is a fact that Paul not only claimed to have seen the risen Jesus, but that he also really believed it.
Therefore we have the resurrection of Jesus attested to by friend and foe alike, which is extremely significant. Why? Because one can more readily explain why followers of Jesus would be susceptible to wanting to believe in his resurrection — but for an admitted one time enemy to also be among those claiming to have seen the resurrected Jesus is nothing short of a game changer.
Also significant is the conversion of Jesus’ brothers, specifically James. First, some people may be surprised to learn that Jesus had siblings — but it is a fact. The Gospels tell us that Jesus had four brothers (James, Joseph/Josses, Simon and Judas/Jude) and at least two sisters (whose names were not recorded). Paul also testifies to the fact that Jesus had brothers, and gives a personnel account of meeting his brother James. The Jewish historian Josephus also mentions James in his writings, who he describes as “the brother of Jesus”. But most significant is that Jesus’ brothers were NOT followers of Jesus during his lifetime or public ministry. What evidence is there for this? We have two independent sources, Mark and John, who testify to this fact. Once more, due to the historical criteria of “embarrassment,” we can further assert that this skepticism, as reported by Mark and John, was indeed authentic. Meaning the principal of embarrassment, from the historical method, that is used by historians, dictates that this is true. Why? Because Christians would not have wanted to report that Jesus’ own family (brothers) did not follow him during his ministry if that was not in fact the case. This evidence is further supported by the fact that John’s Gospel reports Jesus entrusted the care of his mother to his disciple John and NOT one of his siblings. Had any of his brothers been followers, they surely would have been given the nod instead.
So why might Jesus’ own brothers doubt he was the messiah? The Gospels do not give us any answers to this question. But remembering the aforementioned Jewish messianic expectations, it is fair to speculate that being lower class peasants from Galilee, and the sons of a carpenter, it was simply just too difficult to see their brother as the powerful messianic figure expected to “overthrow” their Roman occupiers. It could also be that their parents, Mary & Joseph, had revealed to them their brother was the messiah, but they simply did not believe them – perhaps out of old fashion sibling jealousy. Regardless of the reasons for why they were skeptical, the fact is that this skepticism was later replaced by belief. We know from Luke (Acts 1:14) that Jesus’ brothers did eventually come to faith in Jesus Christ. Paul also testifies to this fact (1 Corinthians 9:5). What might explain this change of heart, i.e. conversion? The answer should be obvious: The Resurrection. In fact, in the case of James, we know that as a result of his encounter with the risen Jesus, he doesn’t just simply become a Christian, but also later became the Leader of the Jerusalem Church. A fact independently recorded by Luke (Acts) and Paul. In fact, so convinced that Jesus was the Resurrected Son of God and Messiah (Christ), James would die a martyrs death. A fact recoded by both Christian and non-Christian sources alike. In other words, here we have another example of a known skeptic converted to belief in Jesus Christ due to an encounter with the risen Jesus. With this final fact concerning the resurrection firmly established, it is time to start wrapping up this post.
As stated from the onset, the linchpin of the Christian faith is the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. In this post I have explored some of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Particularly four key facts: 1) That Jesus was executed by crucifixion, 2) The tomb where he was buried was later found to be empty, 3) That there were multiple eyewitnesses claiming to have encountered the risen Jesus, and 4) That these encounters were experienced by both friend and foe alike. All of this evidence makes a very compelling case that the resurrection of Jesus Christ did indeed occur. However, there are some people, mainly those who subscribe to the ideology of naturalism, who will sadly never even consider this evidence. But to those who do, I hope they will carefully contemplate the evidence and the implications. However, I must acknowledge that this post only scratches the surface concerning the evidence for the resurrection. Journalist and author Lee Strobel, a former atheist turned Christian, has written numerous books related to this topic, e.g. The Case for Christ, The Case for the Resurrection and The Case for the Real Jesus. Along these lines is also The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by scholars Gary Habermas and Michael Licona; and The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by Michael Licona exclusively. Christian Apologist Josh McDowell has similarly authored many related books, e.g. Evidence for the Resurrection. These are just a few of the numerous books that are out there for anyone that wants to explore the evidence further and go more in depth.
Finally, I would like to make one last observation. Apart from the resurrection of Jesus, it is difficult to otherwise explain the origin and beginnings of the Christian Church. Why? Because it emerged from the very city where Jesus had been executed just days prior – and it grew out from there based on the central claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. Once more, the disciples themselves were completely transformed from being largely afraid to identify with Jesus and scattering upon his arrest, to boldly proclaiming his death and resurrection to anyone who would listen, even to the point of death. This transformation is recorded by both Christian and non-Christian sources alike – e.g. Luke (Acts), Ignatius, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Dionysius, Eusebius, Josephus and Tacitus. Again, what but the resurrection could explain this?
In conclusion, while the evidence is very important to consider, and demonstrates that the Christian belief in the resurrection is not some baseless claim or irrational doctrine; I feel it is important to remember something Jesus said in the Gospels. The disciple Thomas had refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to the others; saying he would not believe unless he could both see and feel Jesus’ wounds for himself. Jesus then obliged, but said the following:
“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)
That concludes this post. Thank you for reading. I hope some may have found this insightful.