So many around the world believe in and celebrate the resurrection of a man by the name of Jesus of Nazareth (who allegedly was crucified, buried and risen from the dead to atone for the sins of mankind) some 2,000 years ago. Did this event actually take place? Seeing that resurrections aren’t taking place today, it is a fair and honest point to question why one should believe that a man was indeed raised from the dead.
Unfortunately for some (or perhaps many), Christianity has become more about culture than about conviction. In fact, especially in the south, it is found quite odd to not believe in Jesus. At the same time, this has often led to shallow answers, mantras and “blind” faith (as opposed to evidential faith).
In this post, I want to explain why I do believe that Jesus was resurrected – but not because I “feel it in my heart” or just “know.” Instead, from a historical and systematic standpoint, the evidence convinced me that there could be no other logical explanation. I want to examine 5 points that, when put together, point to the conclusion that Jesus had to actually be resurrected.
Point #1: JESUS REALLY LIVED
Before we can prove that a man was resurrected, we first must prove that he existed. Is there enough historical evidence to prove that Jesus of Nazareth existed?
The New Testament documents provide historical data teaching us that Jesus really lived (Jn. 20:30-31; 21:24-25; Lk. 1:1-4). The New Testament documents are the most attested to and authentic documents of Greek and Latin antiquity in the world (Reinventing Jesus, p. 71). In fact, we have 3 times more NT manuscripts written within the first 200 years of the originals (autographs) than the average Greco Roman writings have within 2000 years (Ehrman vs. Wallace Debate; See also: csntm.org).
Early “Christian” sources (sometimes known as the “Church Fathers”) also attested to the historicity of Jesus. These were religious men who lived in the latter part of the 1st century through the 2nd century and wrote about Jesus and the Bible.
There are approx. 20 independent sources that testify to the historicity of Jesus (Clement of Rome; 2 Clement ; Ignatius; Polycarp; Martyrdom of Polycarp; Didache; Barnabas; Shepherd of Hermas; Fragments of Papias; Justin Martyr; Aristides; Athenagoras; Theophilus of Antioch; Quadratus; Aristo of Pella; Melito of Sardis; Diognetus ; Gospel of Peter; Apocalypse of Peter; Epistula Apostolorum).
The Babylonian Talmud (70 A.D.- 200 A.D.) speaks of Jesus being a real person (The Babylonian Talmud, tansl. By I. Epstein, London: Soncino, 1935, vol. 111, Sanhedrin 43a, p. 281.).
Josephus (37 A.D.-101 A.D.), a Jewish historian, records Jesus being a real person (Antiquities of the Jews, 20:9:1; Antiquities of the Jews, 18:3:3).
Tacitus (55 A.D.-177 A.D.), a Roman historian, spoke of Jesus as a real individual (Annals, 15:44).
Lucian (120 A.D.-180 A.D.), an enemy of Christianity, records Jesus as being a real man (Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, pp. 11-13, in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, translated by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, 1949, vol. 4).
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, the information above demonstrates that the friends of Jesus, historians during Jesus’ time, persons neutral about Jesus and even Jesus’ enemies all attested to Him being a real, human who actually lived. Therefore, the first step of moving that a man was resurrected is by proving that he actually lived. Jesus was a real man who actually lived on this earth.
Point #2: JESUS DIED BY CRUCIFIXION
Once it is established that Jesus actually lived, it needs to be established next that He died by crucifixion. Matthew accounts this (Matthew 27:27-61; v.50). Mark accounts this (Mark 15:16-47; v.37). Luke accounts this (Luke 23:26-56; v.46). John accounts this (John 19:17-42; v.33)
Crucifixion was the way the Romans eliminated the possibility that Jesus could have ever survived. In fact, before the crucifixion, Jesus was beaten and flogged (Lk. 22:63-64; etc.). He was so exhausted that another man had to carry His cross (Mk. 15:21; etc.). Josephus writes:
“When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified…” (Josephus, Antiquities 18.64).
Josephus was not a Christian, he was a Jewish historian that lived during this time. However, even he records the crucifixion as being a real, historical event.
“Nero fastened the guilt [of the burning of Rome] 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” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44 c. A.D. 115).
Lucian of Samosata, the Greek satirist, writes:
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account” (Lucian of Samosata, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13 (c. mid-second century).
The Talmud reports:
“…on the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, late second century, The Babylonian Talmud, I. Epstein, ed. And trans.).
The Talmud is a collection of Jewish writings and is a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, considered second to the Torah. Yeshu is Joshua in Hebrew. The equivalent in Greek is Iesous or Jesus. Being hung on a tree was used to describe crucifixion in antiquity (Lk. 23:39; Gal. 3:13).
So, what historical evidence do we have that Jesus died by crucifixion? The New Testament writers attest to this. An ancient Jewish historian and a Roman historian attest to this. The Talmud attest to this and even enemies of Jesus attest to this.
Point # 3: THE TOMB WAS FOUND EMPTY
Historically speaking, it can be proven that the tomb of Jesus was found empty. Matthew accounts this (Mt. 28:1-8). Mark accounts this (Mk. 16:1-8). Luke accounts this (Lk. 24:1-12). John accounts this (Jn. 20:1-10).
Enemies of Christ tried to explain away the empty tomb by saying that Jesus’ disciples came and stole the body (Mt. 28:12-13; Answer given by enemies in debates: Justin Martyr, Trypho 108; Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30). Biblical testimony and extra-biblical testimony testify to this. This is interesting because there would have been no need for enemies of Christianity to attempt to account for a missing body, if the body had still been in the tomb.
Point # 4: EYE WITNESS ACCOUNTS
Unlike other religions, Christianity wasn’t founded by one person in a corner. On the contrary, all of these actions were public and historically documented. Acts 26:26:
“For I am convinced that none of these things escapes his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner.”
How Christianity started: Jesus was killed publicly; He publicly showed Himself to hundreds of people in multiple places at multiple times after He was resurrected; the public told everyone what they saw; The accounts were verified by eye witness testimony. Faith was built upon reason and evidence (Ac. 26:25)
How other religions started: Only one person claims to have a private dream or encounter with “a” god (or an angelic being); then he tells his private dream or encounter to the public; it is built upon no reasons, no evidence or no eye witness testimony. There is no reason or evidence to back up the claim.
Women are listed as the first witnesses of the empty tomb (Mt. 28:1; etc.). They are mentioned in all four accounts of the Gospel. Males appear later and only in two of the gospel accounts. This would be an odd invention, since in both Jewish and Roman cultures, women were less appreciated and their testimony was regarded as questionable.
Two disciples on the road to Emmaus saw Jesus after He was resurrected (Lk. 24:13-27). His disciples saw Him (1 Cor. 15:5; doubting Thomas, Jn. 20:24-29). James (Jesus’ doubting brother) was changed (Mk. 3:21, 31; 6:3-4; Jn. 7:5; 1 Cor. 15:7; Acts 15:12-21; Gal. 1:19). Even 500 brethren at once (1 Cor. 15:6) —most of which were still alive when Paul wrote to the Corinthians so that the things he was writing could be verified.
Paul’s, based upon his conversion story, is also another eye witness (1 Cor. 15:8; Acts 9; 22; 26). What did Paul have to gain from a worldly standpoint (Phil. 3:4-7)? Paul went from persecuting Christians to being a persecuted Christian (Acts 26:9-11; 2 Cor. 11:22-28; etc.).
These multiple eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus went through great persecution for their belief. They remained steadfast in the face of imprisonment, torture and even martyrdom (Rev. 2:10). It is clear that they sincerely believed that Jesus rose from the dead.
Point # 5: THE ONLY CONSISTENT ANSWER
The following points can be historically and logically proven and sustained:
1. Jesus of Nazareth lived.
2. Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion.
3. The tomb of Jesus was found empty.
4. Many people, including His own disciples, legitimately believed and testified that they saw Jesus resurrected.
These 4 points cannot be historically disputed. However, the question remains, was Jesus actually resurrected? Here lies the debate. The debate is not whether Jesus lived. The debate is not whether Jesus was crucified. The debate is not whether Jesus’ tomb was found empty. The debate is not whether the disciples and many people believed they had seen Jesus resurrected. On the contrary, the debate is centered around whether or not the resurrection of Jesus is the most evidential answer as to why the tomb was empty. While there are many radical alleged theories, there are in essence three serious explanations that attempt to answer the question of the empty tomb.
EXPLANATION #1 – THE DISCIPLES STOLE HIS BODY
The first explanation is that the disciples came and stole the body of Jesus while the guards fell asleep. This was the most popular and common explanation used by non-believers during that time by the enemies of Christianity. They simply claimed that the tomb was empty because the disciples stole the body of Jesus (Mt. 28:15).
Before we being to delve into the evidence that discredits this theory, let’s first be reminded of a couple of things. The tomb was sealed with a very large stone affixed with a Roman seal (Mk. 16:3-4; McDowell, 1981, p. 59). Roman soldiers were guarding the tomb (Matthew 27:62-65). This alone leads to several questions. For example, where is the evidence that the guards slept? How could the disciples have moved the stone and kept from waking the guards?
This leads to the alleged argument, even more absurd than the first: the guards were bribed by the disciples. However, their duty was to make sure no one stole the body – which means their life was also on the line. So, if you were bribed, you certainly wouldn’t have stayed to face the consequences. You would have fled!
However, assuming that somehow the disciples were able to get past the guards and roll the stone away to steal the body of Jesus (or assuming they bribed the guards and were able to take the body), there are many facts that discredit this theory.
First, this theory doesn’t account for the multiple eye witness accounts of others who claimed to have seen Jesus resurrected. Remember, the disciples were only a few out of hundreds who claimed eye witness testimony to the resurrection.
Second, this theory doesn’t account for Paul’s conversion.
Third, this theory would mean that the disciples dedicated their whole life to a lie, which is the exact opposite of the moral standard they dedicated their lives to.
Fourth, there would have been nothing for the disciples to gain in doing this. Why would the disciples steal the body of Jesus only to start a religion they knew to be false? What would have been the point and the motivation?
Fifth, nobody is willing to be persecuted for something they know is false. While many people may die, or be persecuted for what they think is true, nobody dies for what they know is false. J.P. Moreland said:
“The disciples had nothing to gain by lying and starting a new religion. They faced hardship, ridicule, hostility, and martyrs’ deaths. In light of this, they could have never sustained such unwavering motivation if they knew what they were preaching was a lie” (1987, pp. 171-172).
If Jesus was never resurrected, then the disciples were dying and being persecuted for something they knew was false. This makes absolutely no sense in logic and psychology.
EXPLANATION #2 – THE ENEMIES STOLE THE BODY
The second explanation is that the enemies stole the body – perhaps to play a trick on the disciples. The fundamental problem with this explanation is easily exposed.
First, if the enemies of Jesus wanted to shut down Jesus and His followers, then why in the world would they attempt to give any validity to Him by making it look like He was resurrected? This doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.
Second, this doesn’t explain the conviction of the disciples and other eye witness testimony. They all claimed to have seen Jesus resurrected. This theory does not account for this.
Third, this doesn’t explain why the enemies of Jesus tried to say that the disciples stole the body of Jesus. If people began to believe the resurrection (why is the exact opposite of what the enemies wanted), they why did they try and discredit that theory by blaming the disciples when they could have simply refuted it by producing the body of Jesus to prove He was never resurrected?
Fourth, if indeed the enemies stole the body, then they would have immediately stopped Christianity in its tracks on the Day of Pentecost, when Christianity began. Jesus was publicly executed in Jerusalem, yet 50 days later, Christianity started in Jerusalem claiming that Jesus had been resurrected (Acts 2).
In the climate of Jerusalem, a corpse’s hair, stature, and distinctive wounds would have been identifiable, even after fifty days. If the enemies of Jesus would have had His body, they would have defused Christianity before it had a chance to get off the ground! If they stole the body, why did they not expose the disciples’ lie?
Instead, they maintained the position that it was really the disciples who took the body. They never produced the body. What did they have to gain by concealing the most powerful evidence conceivable against the resurrection? Imagine how devastating it would have been for the disciples, had the Jews paraded Jesus’ rotting corpse before the many thousands on Pentecost. Such an act would have strangled the infant church in its crib.
EXPLANATION #3: JESUS WAS ACTUALLY RESURRECTED
This final explanation, the explanation I believe, is rooted in evidence and eye witness testimony. It also answers all of the questions and makes the most sense based upon the evidence we have of the situation.
So, why do some not accept the resurrection story of Jesus? It isn’t because the evidence isn’t there. No, it is because they deny that a resurrection can actually take place. In other words, the presupposition is that a resurrection cannot happen, therefore, regardless of the evidence, it couldn’t have happened.
For example, in a conversation I had with atheist historian Matthew Ferguson, he said:
“A miracle has never been demonstrated with scientific instruments under observation and no ‘bench mark’ miracle has ever been confirmed to boost the prior probability of a miracle in a historical event. Accordingly, the prior probability of Jesus’ miracles are very, very low. This is why I said that all of this could change if a miracle were presented today. If god gave us a miracle today, that would change our background knowledge and prior probability for a miracle occurring in the past.”
In other words, until he can see a resurrection (or something similar), he won’t believe. Not because historical data is lacking, but because he just can’t accept the fact that something like the resurrection would have occurred.
I encourage you to examine the evidence for yourself. Study both sides of this issue (as you should do with any issue) and see where the evidence leads. As Paul said:
“If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17).
“Christ is risen from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20).
That, my friends, is the power of the gospel. Jesus lived, He died for our sins, He was buried and He was resurrected (1 Cor. 15:1-14). Thanks be to God for His awesome plan of salvation!
– Kevin Pendergrass