Jesus in John 11:25 said, “I am, the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” The lengthiest explanation of Jesus’ resurrection is found in 1st Corinthians 15. This whole chapter is about how if Jesus did not bodily rise in victory over death, then Christianity is false and dreamed up by liars to give false hope to people. In this article, we will examine the biblical evidence, historical evidence, and arguments against the resurrection.
The resurrection of Christ is the most known and celebrated miracle in the history of the world. There has always been consensus that it is in many ways the core of our faith:
Thomas Arnold (Professor of Modern History at Oxford) said, “No one fact in the history of mankind is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort [than the fact that] Christ died and rose from the dead.”
Bishop B.F. Westcott stated: “Indeed, taking all the evidences together it is not too much to say that there is no historical incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ.”
John Locke said, “Our Savior’s resurrection is truly of great importance in Christianity; so great that His being or not being the Messiah still stands or falls with it.”
Billy Graham explains: “The entire plan for the future has its key in the resurrection.”
Martin Luther assures: “Our Lord has written the promise of the resurrection not in words alone, but in every leaf in springtime.”
John R. Stott notes: “Christianity is in its very essence a resurrection religion. The concept of resurrection lies at its heart. If you remove it, Christianity is destroyed.”
William Lyon Phelps (Yale Professor) instructs: “In the whole story of Jesus Christ, the most important event is the resurrection.”
Benjamin Warfield (Princeton Professor) exclaims: “The resurrection of Christ is a fact.” Having taken a look at what some people have said regarding the resurrection let us now turn to the Biblical evidence for the Resurrection of Christ.
Rooted in History
700 years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah promised that Jesus would be born into humble circumstances, to live a simple life, die a brutal death, and then rise to take away our sin (Isaiah 53:8-12). On numerous occasions, Jesus himself plainly promised He would die and rise three days later (Matthew 12:38-40; Mark 8:31; 9:31, 10:33-34 John 2:18-22).
The death of Christ was a brutal event where He underwent sleepless nights of trial and beating that left Him exhausted. He was scourged with a whip, crucified on a cross, and had a spear thrust in His side. Later He was wrapped in roughly one hundred pounds of linens and spices, which would have killed Him by asphyxiation, were He still alive. Through this all Jesus could have survived, but He could not have endured three days without food and water in a cold tomb carved out of rock with all of His previous treatments piled on. (John 19:34-35). Jesus was dead before they’d wrapped him in the linens for burial.
Jesus Was Buried in a Tomb That Was Easy to Find
Jesus was a very poor man who could not afford an expensive burial plot. After He died on the cross, a wealthy and well-known man named Joseph of Arimathea gifted his expensive tomb for the burial of Jesus. This made the tomb easy to find, as soldiers were assigned to guard it. The disciples and women who visited the tomb and found it empty all knew exactly where Jesus’ dead body had been laid to rest. Had Jesus not risen from death, it would have been easy to prove it by opening the tomb and presenting Jesus’ body as evidence. (Isaiah 53:9, Matthew 27:57-30)
Jesus Appeared Physically Alive Three Days After His Death
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the physical resurrection of Jesus while maintaining that He rose spiritually. This alternative explanation for Jesus’ resurrection does not agree with the historical facts. Following Jesus’ resurrection, many people touched His body; His disciples clung to His feet, Mary clung to Him, and Thomas (the doubter) put his hand into the open spear hole in Jesus side. Jesus appeared to His disciples after the resurrection, who had been uncertain if He had truly physically risen from death. The Scriptures are clear however that Jesus went out of His way to prove His bodily resurrection (Matthew 28:9; John 20:17, John 20:17; John 20:20-28). There is no credible historical evidence from the time period of Jesus to validate any alternative explanation for Jesus’ resurrection, other than His literal physical resurrection (Luke 24:36-43).
Jesus’ Resurrection Was Recorded as Scripture Shortly After it Occurred
Mark’s Gospel account of the days leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion mentions the high priest without naming him. Mark did not mention the high priest by name because he expected his readers to know whom he was speaking about. Caiaphas was high priest from 18-37 A.D.; the latest possible date for this tradition is 37 A.D. This date is so close to the death of Jesus there would not have been sufficient time for a legend of His resurrection to occur. This proves that the biblical record of Jesus’ resurrection was penned while eyewitnesses were still alive to verify the facts. His resurrection was not a legend that was developed after the time of Jesus (Mark 14:53-54, 60-61, 63).
Jesus’ Resurrection was Celebrated in the Earliest Church Creeds
1st Corinthians 15:3-4 states, “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.” This statement is accepted as the earliest church creed which began circulating as early as 30-36 A.D., shortly after Jesus’ resurrection. The early age of this creed demonstrates there was not sufficient time between the crucifixion and the creed for any legend about Jesus’ resurrection to accrue. Also, the witnesses mentioned were still alive and available to be questioned about the facts surrounding the resurrection. The early date of this creed also proves that the church did not corrupt the truth about Jesus with fables and folklore like the resurrection. Rather, the early church simply clung to the plain and incontrovertible facts of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.
Jesus’ Resurrection Convinced His Family to Worship Him as God
James, Jesus’ half-brother, was originally opposed to the claims of his brother. A transformation occurred in James after he saw his brother resurrected from death. James went on to pastor the church in Jerusalem and authored the New Testament epistle bearing his name. He was also actively involved in shaping the early church, which suffered and died to proclaim to everyone that Jesus is the one true God. Jesus’ mother, Mary, was part of the early church that prayed to and worshiped her Son as God, as was Jesus’ other brother, Jude, who wrote a book of the New Testament bearing his name. While it is not impossible to imagine Jesus convincing his own mother and brothers to suffer persecution in this life and risk the torments of Hell in eternal life for worshiping Him as the one true God unless He truly is (John 7:5; 1st Corinthians 15:7; James 1:1; Acts 12:17; 15:12-21; 21:18; Galatians 2:9; Acts 1:14; Jude 1).
Jesus’ Resurrection was Confirmed by His Most Bitter Enemies Like Paul
Paul was a devout Jewish Pharisee who routinely persecuted and killed Christians. After an encounter with the risen Christ, Paul was converted and became the most dynamic defender and expander of the Church. Had Jesus not truly risen from death, it is absurd to assume that Paul would ever have worshiped Him as God, particularly when Paul rightly believed that worshiping a false God would send one into Hell. Paul hated Jesus and would never have changed his religious practice unless Jesus had risen from the dead to prove him wrong. Finally, Paul insisted that Jesus had risen in almost all of his letters that are in the New Testament. (Philippians 3:4-6; Acts 7:54-60; Acts 9).
Historical Evidence for Jesus’ Death and Resurrection
After studying the biblical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, it is now important to examine the historical evidence for His life, death, and resurrection. The historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection is overwhelming. The testimony of these non-Christians is important because it confirms the truthfulness of the biblical accounts of Jesus. The argument from many non-Christians is there no historical evidence to substantiate the Resurrection. Not only is this charge false, it dismisses the evidence without even considering it, which is to violate the principles of sound research in order to justify one’s opinion. Let the historical evidence presented here speak for itself and realize this is only a sampling of the massive historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ.
Josephus (37-100 A.D.)
In the Testimonium Flavianum, Josephus says: “Now there was about this Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these men and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
Suetonius (70-160 A.D.)
Suetonius was a Roman historian and annalist of the Imperial House. In his biography of Nero, Suetonius mentions the persecution of Christians by indirectly referring to the resurrection: “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition [the resurrection].”
Pliny the Younger (62-113 A.D.)
Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan describing early Christian worship gatherings that met early on Sunday mornings in memory of Jesus’ resurrection day: “I have never been present at an examination of Christians. Consequently, I do not know the nature of the extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how are it should be pressed. They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error accounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day [Sunday in remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection] to change verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god.”
Christ Compared to Other “Gods”
Wilbur M. Smith, in Therefore Stand, states, “The original accounts of Buddha never ascribe to him any such thing as a resurrection; in fact, in the earliest accounts of his death, namely, the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, we read that when Buddha died it was ‘with that utter passing away in which nothing whatever remains behind.”
Professor Childers says, “There is no trace in the Pali scriptures or commentaries (or so far as I know in any Pali book) Sakya Muni having existed after his death or appearing to his disciples. Mohammed died June 8th, 632 A.D., at the age of sixty-one, at Medina, where his tomb is annually visited by thousands of devout Mohammedans [Islams]. All the millions and millions of Jews, Buddhists, and Mohammedans agree that their founders have never come up out of the dust of the earth in resurrection.”
Theodosus Harnock exclaims: “Where you stand with regard to the fact of the Resurrection is in my eyes no longer Christian theology. To me, Christianity stands or falls with the Resurrection.”
Professor William Milligan advises: “While speaking of the positive evidence for the Resurrection of our Lord, it may be further urged that the fact, if true, harmonizes all the other facts of His history.”
Bernard Ramm says, “[That even] the most cursory reading of the Gospels reveals the fact that the Gospels deal with the death and resurrection of Christ in far greater detail than any other part of the ministry of Christ. The details of the resurrection must not be artificially severed from the passion account.”
Many impartial students who have approached the resurrection of Christ with a judicial spirit have been compelled by the weight of the evidence to belief in the resurrection as a fact of history. An example may be seen from a letter written by Sir Edward Clarke, K.C., to Reverend E. L. Macassey:
As a lawyer, I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter Day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court, I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling. Inference follows on evidence, and a truthful witness is always artless and disdains effect. The Gospel evidence for the resurrection is of this class, and as a lawyer, I accept it unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to facts they were able to substantiate.
Professor Bernard Ramm also comments, “In both ecclesiastical history and creedal history the resurrection is affirmed from the earliest times. It is mentioned in Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians (95 A.D.), the earliest document of church history and so continuously throughout all the patristic period. It appears in all forms of the Apostles’ Creed and is never debated.”
The Jewish Explanation
The earliest attempt to provide an alternative explanation for the resurrection of Christ did not deny that tomb was empty (Matthew 28:13-15). The Jews claimed that the body was stolen, thus admitting the fact of the empty tomb. The tomb was closed with an enormous rock and sealed by the government, and there is no explanation for how the rock was moved while being guarded by Roman soldiers. Second, if the body had been stolen, a large ransom could have been offered to the thieves, and they could have been coerced to produce the body. If the disciples had taken the body, then the only thing the Jews would have had to do is to persecute the disciples enough to give up the body of Jesus. Thirdly, if the body was stolen, how are we to account for the fact that Jesus appeared to multiple crowds of people, proving that He was alive. Finally, the theft of the body is unlikely and still fails to account for it returning to life.
The historical testimony of those who were not Christians stands in agreement with the Scripture that Jesus died and rose again, because those are facts established from the Bible and history. Having examined the biblical, historical, and some of the arguments against the resurrection, it is clear that the resurrection of Christ is a historical and biblical fact.
Every year Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at Easter. Many people believe in the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection but have not become Christians by placing their personal faith in Him. Jesus promised that He would not only rise from death to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that He is God, but also that He would judge everyone who has ever lived and determine their faith (John 5:16-30). His first promise came true when He rose from death, and His second promise will come true either upon our death or upon His return. The opportunity in this life is to repent and turn from sin only extends in this life. There are no second chances after death to repent. Jesus is more than just a good man, teacher, prophet, and priest; He is the Son of God, who died for sinners, was buried, and rose again. Forgiveness and eternal life are made possible only through Jesus’ own death and resurrection for humanity.
The burial and resurrection of Christ form two-thirds of the Gospel. The Gospel is not secondary, it is primary. Paul reminds Christians in 1st Corinthians 15:1-3, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” Paul makes it clear that the content of the gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. These are the “words of Christ” which Paul speaks of in Romans 10:17.
Having now examined the biblical, historical, and some of the arguments against the resurrection it is now time to make a decision. Will you come to hear and heed the gospel of Jesus Christ? Jesus often divided His audience into categories: those who pretend to follow Him, and those who authentically take up their crosses and follow Him. The same is true today; those who accept the gospel will be saved by believing and confessing that Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again. The gospel of Jesus Christ has been the clarion message of the Church for two thousand years. There is no other message that God has authorized other than His Gospel. Any message that takes away from the gospel dismisses Christianity entirely. The gospel is the power of God for the salvation of man’s souls. Man’s deepest need is Christ’s righteousness.
During His sinless life, Jesus demonstrated that He cared for the poor, weak, sick, and so many more by ministering His healing power, which stemmed from the fact He was the Son of God. People knew that Jesus was the real deal and were attracted to Him because of His divine authority and power. Christians today have been empowered by the Resurrected Christ to spread His Gospel to the ends of the earth; calling people to repent from their idols and turn to the living God through His Son, Jesus Christ, whose death forever satisfied the wrath of the Father. It is this gospel that is the foundation stone for the Church and by it believers may “stand” (1 Corinthians 15:1).
Do you have assurance that your sins are forgiven? Do you know where you are going when you die? The only One who can offer you forgiveness from your sin and empower you to live a new life is the Resurrected Christ. Let us be reminded of Romans 11:36, which exalts, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
Flavius Josephus, “Jewish Antiquities,” In The New Complete Works o Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1999), 18.63-64).
Suetonius, Vita Nero 16.11-13.
Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96.1-7
Kenneth L. Woodward, “2000 years of Jesus,” Newsweek, March 29, 1999, 54.
For more on the evidence for Jesus read Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Historical evidences for the Christian Faith by Josh McDowell.