The Case for the Resurrection

“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 in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

1 Corinthians 15:17-19

Historically speaking, the single event in history that has most impacted the trajectory of civilization is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even those who choose not to believe in a physical resurrection of Jesus Christ must admit that at the very least, the claim of the resurrection of Jesus Christ has fundamentally altered the entire trajectory of civilization. Across the major religions and worldviews there exist fundamental difference in opinion on this issue. The Christian believes that the resurrection is a fundamental fact of world history and is to be believed literally. As the Apostle clearly states in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19, the entirety of Christianity rests on this claim of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. In other words, if the resurrection of Jesus is just a myth or fabricated story, then all of Christianity falls apart. Other worldviews take a different approach. Islam denies that Jesus was actually killed on the cross and therefore denies his physical resurrection. Atheists reject the claim of Jesus’ resurrection on grounds that a physical resurrection belies the reality they claim they understand. Meanwhile the postmodernist tends to hold that whether or not a man named Jesus died and came back to life 2,000 years ago is meaningless and unimportant for our lives in the 21st century. Clearly, all these major worldviews differ on their interpretation of reality. Not only can all of these ideas not be true simultaneously, for each fundamentally contradicts the other, but depending on which one actually is true will profoundly impact one’s life.

As a Christian we must make sure we have a proper mindset when engaging evidences like what I lay out in this article. The Christian rests confidently and courageously on the historical fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus based on the account of the Word of God alone. If no other evidence existed supporting the claims of Christ’s resurrection, the Christian would have no need for doubt or uncertainty of these events. The Word of God is clear and reliable. As is the case with all areas of the Christian faith however, there is ample physical evidence in history that not only supports belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but makes any contradictory belief an incredibly far stretch of the imagination against the evidence available.

The Christian rests confidently and courageously on the historical fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus based on the account of the Word of God alone.

The second half of the 20th century saw a drastic change in the historical understanding of the facts surrounding the resurrection. Up through the early 1950’s many non-believing scholars of the New Testament believed that the Bible’s depiction of the resurrection was either fabricated story telling on the one hand, or perhaps a case of historical mass hallucination on the other hand. As deeper study of the facts ensued these false explanations of the resurrection began to be agreed upon by scholars as unlikely or even impossible explanations for the resurrection account. Today among historical scholars of all stripes and creeds there are three particular agreed upon historical facts that are virtually undeniable (there are many more compelling evidential cases for the resurrection than just these three, but these three rise to the top as both deeply significant and impossible to reject). Taken individually, none of these three facts amount to a cold evidential case for the resurrection of Christ. But taken together they paint a powerful and compelling historical reason to believe that Jesus resurrected from the dead. [1]

The following three evidences are extensively dealt with by Gary Habermas in his book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. For an additional helpful summary of Habermas’ conclusions from which my own summary below is organized similarly, see Desiring God’s Historical Evidence for the Resurrection.

The Empty Tomb

All historians agree that the tomb where Jesus was buried after his crucifixion, was empty on the morning of the third day. Again, this fact of history alone does not prove he rose from the grave. Nevertheless it is a fact of history, a very inconvenient fact of history for the Christian skeptic. The reason virtually all scholars, both believers and non-believers, agree to this fact of history is based on a handful of evidences that are very difficult to refute.

First, the resurrection of Jesus was first preached in the city of Jerusalem, the very city where Jesus’ body was placed in a tomb. Had the story of the empty tomb been false, all one would need to have done to disprove the resurrection was walk down the street to the tomb’s location and point to the body. This never happened. Rather, the message of the resurrection of Jesus began to circulate in the very city where his body had been laid.

Second, the earliest Jewish claims about Jesus never rejected that the tomb was empty. Matthew 28:11-15 records that the Jewish leaders claimed the body had been stolen, but it does not say they rejected the notion that the tomb was empty. Additional points of contact with early Jews of this time period affirm the local Jewish did indeed acknowledge the empty tomb, even though they attempted to offer alternate explanations. This provides critical evidence because the elite Jews of Jesus’ day were the religious group in Jerusalem most hostile to the story of the resurrection and would have been the most likely to reject the story of the empty tomb.

Third, New Testament studies have revealed that the Gospel of Mark, in the New Testament, utilizes another non-biblical source, now lost to history, that can be dated to within seven years of the resurrection of Christ. This provides early eye witness written record of the empty tomb. In terms of eye witness evidence, these early dates of the eye witness recordings of the events and the even earlier dates of the initial writings are powerful bits of evidence.

Fourth, the resurrection of Jesus is supported by the New Testament account of the burial of Jesus which mentions Joseph of Arimathea, who was a well known leader of the Jewish Sanhedrin at the time, as the one who buried Christ. It is highly unlikely that the burial story of Jesus, which includes such an elite figure in Jewish society in Jerusalem, would begin to circulate in the first century if the story was false. In the New Testament the burial and the resurrection of Jesus are one complete passage. In other words, for the burial account of Christ involving Joseph of Arimathea to be so obviously true, it would be extremely difficult for the very next passage to be so obviously false.

Fifth, the tomb of Jesus was never enshrined as is so often the case in the history of religion. Typically the bodies of dead saints become points of pilgrimage. This is powerful evidence that for a religious leader who became as famous as Jesus had become, that his body did not stay in the tomb.

Sixth, the earliest New Testament account of the resurrection is in Mark’s gospel and shows none of the embellishments that would populate much later mythological non-Biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, such as the Gospel of Peter or the Gospel of Thomas, false works that have been dated to far later dates than the early eye witness accounts and which include absurd statements such as men walking with their heads touching the clouds. The earliest accounts, provided in the New Testament, read as honest accounts of a powerful moment in history.

Lastly, the empty tomb is documented in the New Testament as being first discovered by women. In the first century, a woman’s voice often had little to no respect in providing testimony. Their voice was considered circumspect at best, and unreliable in any official setting. Considering this reality, it is bizarre that the new testament clearly presents women as the first to see the empty tomb. The only explanation for telling the story in this way, is if the New Testament writers were simply telling the truth of what happened, and not attempting to sugarcoat the reality to make their case more believable.

The Resurrection Appearances

The second primary evidence that the resurrection took place as a historical event is that the disciples of Jesus truly believed they had seen Jesus resurrected. The New Testament documents, many of which were written by the closest disciples of Jesus, attest to the first hand accounts of witnessing the resurrected Christ. The Apostle John writes in 1 John 1:1, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” Luke begins his gospel account of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ with, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Note here that the historian Luke took pains to note that he interviewed the eye witnesses of the event. Similarly Matthew, Peter, and Paul all give first hand witness to the resurrection.

Additionally, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 records what was at the time of the writing of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a well documented and reported creed. This creed reads, “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, though 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.” This is one of the earliest creeds of Christendom dating to within five years of the resurrection and clearly demonstrates the Disciples truly believed they had witnessed a resurrection.

But the story gets even more intriguing. It is clear that the disciples of Jesus taught in the early years after Jesus’ death that they had seen Jesus resurrected. Some through history have accused the Disciples of concocting a plan to fabricate the story of the resurrection in order to develop a new religion. There are two powerful rebuttals to such an idea. The first rebuttal is that ten of Jesus’ twelve disciples all died excruciatingly painful deaths for their belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus. Throughout history, many men and women have died for religious beliefs. There is nothing particularly peculiar about someone willing to die for their beliefs, even cult followers have demonstrated a willingness to do that. But in the case of these Disciples, the situation is entirely different. These disciples did not die for a set of religiously held beliefs. They died for what they claimed to have seen with their own eyes, the resurrected Jesus. Many men will die for their faith. It is remarkably improbable however, that a group of men would all choose to die for something they knew they had fabricated. Yet history attests, they all died.

This is incredibly strong evidence that the disciples of Jesus, as well as the many early witnesses of the resurrection recorded in scripture, truly did see Jesus resurrected from the grave. Gerd Ludemann, an Atheistic New Testament scholar summarizes:

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.

Gerd Ludeman. Quotes from The Case For the Resurrection of Jesus. [2]

The Origin of the Christian Faith

The third agreed upon fact of history is the origin of the Christian faith. Christianity began after the death of Jesus Christ. Something occurred that mobilized a group of fairly scared individuals to step into bold public proclamation of a religious message that would eventually get them each killed. Acts 4 records the Apostle Peter’s first sermon. This is the same individual who only days earlier had rejected even knowing Jesus during Jesus’ trial, for fear that he too would be tried and crucified. Yet, in Acts 4 Peter begins to preach courageously about the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus. In that sermon Peter goes so far as to directly challenge the political powers that be by saying, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).” This statement was a direct assault on the the household of Caesar. Augustus Caesar was referred to as the Son of God as well as the Savior. He was believed to be a god-like human mediator between the heavenly and earthly realms. He would offer sacrifices to the gods and was considered a type of messianic figure. Ethelbert Stauffer has recorded that it was commonly said in the days of Augustus Caesar, “salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus, and there is no other name given to men in which they can be saved[3] Against this cultural background Peter and the early Apostles began to preach a message that Jesus alone was Lord and Savior.

Even James, the biological half-brother of Jesus, who originally doubted Jesus’ claims of divinity (John 7:5), upon witnessing the resurrected Jesus, believed and became a significant leader in the early Christian movement (Acts 12:17).

There must be some explanation for the sudden outburst of Christianity into the cultural backdrop of 1st century Israel, a movement that would endure waves of persecution in its first century. Historians agree the only incident that is both unifying and powerful enough to begin a movement with such powerful roots is the physical resurrection of Jesus as recorded by the eye witnesses. Other significant leaders and movements rose and faded during the same time. They lacked the sticking power of Christianity which was rooted not just in a faith in the unseen, but also in the witness of the resurrected Christ.

There is a virtual consensus among scholars who study Jesus’ resurrection that, subsequent to Jesus’ death by crucifixion, his disciples really believed that he appeared to them risen from the dead. This conclusion has been reached by data that suggest that (1) the disciples themselves claimed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them, and (2) subsequent to Jesus’ death by crucifixion, his disciples were radically transformed from fearful, cowering individuals who denied and abandoned him at his arrest and execution into bold proclaimers of the gospel of the risen Lord. They remained steadfast in the face of imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom. It is very clear that they sincerely believed that Jesus rose from the dead.

Gary Habermas. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus

Putting These Facts Together

These three facts are virtually undisputed facts of history: the empty tomb, the honest belief of the disciples, & the origin of the Church. There are many more well document facts that support the resurrection, but these three stand alone in a place of historic undeniability by both Christian and non-Christian alike. When taken together they form a powerful set of evidence supporting the Biblical tradition that Jesus Christ rose physically from the dead and appeared to his disciples. Once again, as Christians, evidences like these are helpful but not necessary. Our faith is built upon God’s self-referencing authority over all reality. His Word has testified and therefore it is true. But evidences like these are helpful in developing the resolve of Christians, as they cut through the false narratives of culture that have duped so many into believing that the Bible contradicts scientific evidences.

It is other non-Christian worldviews that must provide some kind of explanation to account for these facts. Over the last hundred years of scholarship many atheists have attempted to provide an alternate explanation to satisfy these facts, but every such attack has faded over time as either inconsistent or impossible. From a strictly evidential perspective, the most probable solution to explain the evidence of history is that the eye witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead are accurate.

It is other non-Christian worldviews that must provide some kind of explanation to account for these facts.

Tomorrow morning we celebrate Easter Sunday, and the reality that Jesus Christ who was God in the flesh, has risen from the grave. He has triumphed over evil and the consequences of sin. He is the victor, the King, our champion. His resurrection has sealed our own resurrection that will one day become our reality. May your faith in Christ rest confidently in the work He accomplished when he defeated death once and for all!

[1] For a full treatment, see Gary Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.

[2] (Habermas n.d.)

[3] (Stauffer 1955, 88)

*DesiringGod has a similar article summarizing Habermas’s book here:

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