This is a seven-part series on why everyone should be a Christian.
Click on the following links (soon to come) to explore the various installments:
(3) The Credibility of Christ
[c] Was Jesus Resurrected?
(5) The Care of Christ
(6) The Condemnation of Christ
(7) The Change to Christ
Jesus indubitably died on the cross (“Was Jesus Dead?”).
However, it is not as though death prevailed over him. Rather, both the manner of his death and the fact of his resurrection demonstrate his mastery over death at every step of the way.
The Master Of Death
First, all four gospel writers document his passing on the cross. But none of them use the phrase, “he died.”
Instead, they all talk of him giving up his spirit (Mt. 27.50; Mk. 15.37; Lk. 23.46; Jn. 19.30). Perhaps the subtle point is that death did not take him, but that he volunteered himself to the Grim Reaper (cf. Jn. 10.18; 1 Jn. 3.16).
In other words, while it may be said in a historic way that he “died” (cf. Acts 25.19; Rm. 5.6, 8; 6.10; 8.34; 14.9; 1 Cor. 8.11; 15.3), yet descriptively Jesus died only by letting go of life. He was in charge the entire time!
In John’s account, the description of his passing is even more vivid. He said that Jesus “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (Jn. 19.30, ESV). He does not suggest that he died and then his head fell, which would be more natural.
On the contrary, the bowing of the head
“reveals a residue of strength yet in his body” (Jackson, p. 196).
It’s as if in that moment he chose to pass on rather than let death take him unwillingly.
Hence, even in the act of dying, Jesus was the master.
The Necessity Of The Resurrection
Second, if Jesus was who he claimed to be, then there is no way he could have remained dead. His resurrection was inevitable.
Peter put it like this:
“It was impossible for death to hold him” (Acts 2.24).
In his book, The Clockwork Image, British physicist Donald Mackay (1922-1987) explained that
“it would not have made sense for the Creator, when he came unto his own drama, to have been destroyed in any ultimate sense by characters in that drama” (MacKay, pp. 63-65).
Indeed, Jesus had to be resurrected; otherwise, his claims would be quashed and our “faith” would become “empty,” “false,” “futile,” and “pitiable” (1 Cor. 15.14-19).
Thankfully, the evidence for his resurrection is preponderant.
Let’s first explore the historical evidence, then the physical, and finally the testimonial evidence.
The Historical Evidence
The resurrection of Christ is not merely a theological or conceptual matter. It is a matter of history.
Cambridge scholar B. F. Westcott (1825-1901) remarked that
“there is no historic incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ” (Little, p. 70).
World-renowned historian Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) likewise argued that Jesus’ resurrection is the “best-attested fact in human history” (Arnold, p. 2569).
The New Testament itself is a collection of historical records. They document what happened in Palestine during the first century A.D. The vast majority of these documents are letters describing events that occurred within that generation. And as Professor Ernest Kevan (1903-1965) observed:
“For the establishment of an alleged historical fact no documents are esteemed to be more valuable than contemporary letters” (Kevan, p. 6).
The New Testament, then, cannot be dismissed as a fantasy novel. It makes definite historical assertions in the form of a “continuous, systematic narrative of past events relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc.” — the definition of “history” (Dictionary.com, 2023).
American philosopher Richard Purtill (1931-2016) nutshells the case for the historical credibility of the New Testament:
"Many events which are regarded as firmly established historically have (1) far less documentary evidence than many biblical events; (2) and the documents on which historians rely for much secular history are written much longer after the event than many records of biblical events; (3) furthermore, we have many more copies of biblical narratives than of secular histories; and (4) the surviving copies are much earlier than those on which our evidence for secular history is based. If the biblical narratives did not contain accounts of miraculous events, biblical history would probably be regarded as much more firmly established than most of the history of, say, classical Greece and Rome" (Purtill, pp. 84-85).
And even the miracles of the Bible are documented in a matter-of-fact historical style.
Indeed, unlike the legends of the pagan past, the resurrection of Jesus did not happen in some folkloric underworld or a metaphysical cloud that brings rejuvenation during the vernal equinox each year. On the contrary, it occurred in a place
“of geographical definiteness, the man who owned the tomb was a man living in the first half of the first century; that tomb was made out of rock in a hillside near Jerusalem, and was not composed of some mythological gossamer, or cloud-dust, but is something which has geographical significance. The guards put before that tomb were not aerial beings from Mt. Olympus; the Sanhedrin was a body of men meeting frequently in Jerusalem. As a vast mass of literature tells us, this person, Jesus, was a living person, a man among men, whatever else He was, and the disciples who went out to preach the risen Lord were men among men, men who ate, drank, slept, suffered, worked, died. What is there “doctrinal” about this? This is a historical problem” (Smith, p. 386).
We have vastly more knowledge of Jesus’ final days than “any single character in all of ancient history” — “infinitely more” than “any Old Testament character, of any king of Babylon, Pharaoh of Egypt, any philosopher of Greece, or triumphant Caesar” (ibid., p. 371).
For example, we know where and how Jesus spent his last night. We know who betrayed him, precisely how much his betrayer received for the treachery, what his betrayer did with that blood money, and how his betrayer died. We know how Jesus was arrested, who interrogated him, what was said during the interrogations, how he was crucified, when he was crucified, what was said during the crucifixion, what happened when he died, who removed his body from the cross, how and where he was buried, how that tomb was secured, sealed, and guarded at the request of the Jews to ensure his corpse would not be stolen, etc.
Think about this. The Jewish people were meticulous record keepers. The Old Testament itself is brimming with genealogies, historical accounts, lists of kings, queens, princes, cities, dates, nations, mountains, seas, lakes, rivers, etc. There are copious descriptions of historical people, ancient battles, the rising and falling of civilizations, the building and destruction of great structures, famines, floods, etc. The Jewish people had very little interest in mythology — which was pagan at its core.
Hence, when the apostles of Christ began spreading the news of Jesus’ resurrection, they did so to a group of people who were sticklers for historical accuracy, who could swiftly smell the difference between the musty odor of stale myths and the lively fragrance of reality.
When false messiahs surfaced and made inflated promises to the people, many Jews were naturally willing and desirous to see them fulfill their lofty promises and prove their claims. However, when these men could not do so, the people abandoned them, and the false christs slinked away into obscurity. Nothing came of their movements (Acts 5.35-39).
But these very same people had personal contact with the things Jesus said and did. If there was nothing to the resurrection of Jesus, the Jews — of all people — would have summarily dismissed the notion as a pagan superstition, just as they had dismissed the false christs before Jesus.
Even the apostles thought that the women who first told them about Jesus’ resurrection were simply telling “idle tales” or “nonsense” (Lk. 24.11, NKJV, NIV). If the resurrection was baseless, Jesus’ messianic movement would have died out along with all the others. But that is not what happened.
It is not insignificant, then, that tens of thousands of Jews — including “a great many of the priests” (Acts 6.7) — became Christians. Even though they had crucified Jesus, his resurrection persuaded them to repent and start spreading the news of Christ far and wide (cf. Acts 2.36-47).
Indeed, right from the beginning of the movement, the matter of “first importance” was that “Christ died…was buried, and that he was raised on the third day” (1 Cor. 15.3-4, ESV; see more below). This “third day” detail puts the resurrection into time and space.
Accordingly, the resurrection of Christ was not a mere legend that developed gradually over decades or centuries. It was a civilization-changing news item spread to Jews within weeks of its occurrence that happened among people obsessed with history. Their conversion speaks volumes as to the historicity of its occurrence.
The Physical Evidence
In addition, several physical elements in the resurrection account warrant reflection.
In the first place, Christians unanimously reported that Jesus was buried in a tomb, the location of which was given in detail.
Likewise, the early Christians reported that this tomb was owned by a specifically identified “prominent council member” named Joseph of Arimathea (Mk 15.43; Mt. 27.57-61).
There are several reasons why the burial of Jesus in such a tomb is credible.
First, the details of the burial of Jesus were subject to the falsification test — i.e., they could be tested for accuracy.
The tomb was not in some remote location so far away that no one could ever find it to examine it. Rather, it was located in the garden near the crucifixion site just outside Jerusalem.
The tomb itself was newly fashioned, making it even more conspicuous (Mt. 27.60). It could be seen and touched. Either it was there or it wasn’t.
Likewise, the early Christians claimed that several people were involved in Jesus’ death and burial — e.g., Pilate, the centurion, the women, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, etc. (cf. Mk. 15.42ff; Jn. 19.38ff).
Pilate in particular was well-known in first-century Palestine. It would have been easy for him to refute — in a resoundingly public way — what the Christians were claiming about his role in the death and burial of Jesus.
Too, the apostles did not paint Joseph as an obscure character in an obscure occupation from an obscure place, whom no one could track down for authentication. On the contrary, the assertion that Joseph was a “prominent…member” of the highest governing body in the land made it easy either to substantiate or refute the burial narrative. The same holds of Nicodemus.
In short, early Christians did not base the burial account on abstract notions or generic assertions. Rather, they reported specific physical details that could either be verified or falsified. The burial account passes the test of falsifiability.
Second, if the early Christians had fabricated the burial account, the enemies of Christ merely had to show either that no such tomb existed, that Joseph of Arimathea was not real, or that Jesus wasn’t buried in the man’s tomb. Yet they never disputed any of these physical details. Their concession of these facts also lends credence to the burial account.
Third, even though first-century skeptics didn’t dispute these burial claims, that has not prevented modern skeptics from doing so.
Agnostic-Atheist Bart Ehrman (b. 1955), for instance, argues forcefully for Jesus’ existence and death on the cross. However, he dismisses the burial narrative.
Since the Romans crucified criminals “to torture and humiliate a person as fully as possible,” their regular practice was to show “no mercy and no concern for anyone’s sensitivities” (Ehrman, 2014).
In that light, Ehrman conjectures that the Romans never would have allowed Joseph — a mere Jew — to give Jesus a decent burial. Rather,
“part of the humiliation and degradation was being left on the cross after death, to be subject to the scavenging animals” (ibid.).
Against this conjecture, however, are the following points:
(1) People who were present for Jesus’ burial make much more reliable witnesses than skeptics — centuries removed from the events in question — who claim to know facts they never witnessed. First-hand testimony should be given greater weight.
(2) Though the Romans were indeed ruthless, that does not mean they never made exceptions to their crucifixion practices.
As covered in the previous study (“Was Jesus Dead?”), the Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37-100 A.D.) requested that three of his acquaintances, who had been taken captive during the Jewish uprising, be removed from the cross. The Roman general Titus granted him this mercy, even directing the physicians to nurture the Jewish men back to health (The Life of Flavius Josephus 75).
For that matter, Pilate himself “was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom (the Jews) wished” (Mt. 27.15; cf. Lk. 23.24).
Hence, the premise that the Romans were without magnanimity for their conquered enemies — or that they had “no concern about Jewish sensitivities” (Ehrman, loc. cit.) — is false.
(3) Joseph was indeed a subordinate of the empire, but he was not without clout. Again, he was a “prominent council member” (Mk. 15.43).
Since Pilate was concerned about maintaining order in the territory (cf. Mt. 27.24) — and was even willing to “gratify the crowd” to keep the peace (Mk. 15.15) — why is it implausible to think that Pilate would have granted the request of a wealthy and influential politician like Joseph, who could potentially help keep the Jews in line?
(4) Pilate had considerable misgivings about crucifying Jesus.
His wife warned him that Jesus was a “just man” (Mt. 27.19). Neither he nor Herod “found any fault in” Jesus; “indeed nothing deserving of death has been done by Him,” Pilate pronounced (Lk. 23.14-15). Therefore, he “wished to release Jesus” (Lk. 23.20).
If he desired to “release” Jesus before his death, why is it unreasonable to think he would be willing to “release” Jesus after his death — when the crowd had dissipated — so that this “just man” could receive a decent burial?
Put another way, a mere criminal might have been left to rot on the cross, as Ehrman suggests. But Pilate did not regard Jesus as a mere “crucified criminal” (ibid.) There was something unique about Jesus, for whom he wished to “wash his hands” and proclaim himself “innocent of this man’s blood” (Mt. 27.24, ESV). Allowing Jesus to be buried in this manner is consistent with the psychology of a man who wished to appease his conscience of his victim’s death.
Consequently, these human elements — viz., Roman magnanimity in unique cases, the clout of Joseph, and Pilate’s misgivings — give credence to the notion that Jesus was not left to rot on the cross, as per usual for criminals, but that Joseph was authorized to bury him with dignity in a luxurious tomb.
Fourth, archeological evidence supports the tomb-burying aspect of the Christian narrative in several ways.
(1) There are thousands of tombs in Palestine from this era, which were “hewn out of the rock” just like Joseph’s tomb (Mt. 27.60; see Wight, p. 144).
(2) Though the poor were typically buried in common graves, the wealthy were able to afford such tombs (ibid.). Thus, Matthew’s description of Joseph as a “rich man” is consistent with the archeological data (Mt. 27.57).
(3) Joseph “rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb” (Mt. 27.60). This is also consistent with excavations of the area, which indicate that the wealthier tombs were secured
“by a rolling stone which ran down an inclined plane in front of the mouth of the sepulcher” (ibid., pp. 144-145).
These rolling stones weighed about one or two tons (McDowell, p. 70). Because the stone was set into place by rolling it down a slanted groove, Joseph and Nicodemus together may have been able to close the tomb on their own, letting gravity work with them (cf. Mt. 27.60; Jn. 19.38-42), though some suggest that several more people may have been needed.
“it would take several men to roll the stone back up in order to reopen the tomb” (Craig, 1998, p. 211).
This explains why the women wondered how they would get back into the tomb when they returned on resurrection morning, “for" the stone "was very large” (Mk. 16.3-4).
In that light, the tomb “was quite secure” (ibid).
Logic also supports the burial account.
The apostles admitted that they had forsaken Jesus for fear. Meanwhile, they reported that Joseph of Arimathea “took courage” (Mk. 15.43), refused to “consent” to the decision of the council to put Jesus to death (Lk. 23.51), and asked permission from Pilate to bury Jesus (Mt. 27.58).
Likewise, they revealed that Nicodemus — a “Pharisee” and fellow “ruler” with Joseph (Jn. 3.1) — also helped bury Jesus (Jn. 19.39).
It is dubious to think that the apostles would invent a story that painted themselves — the Lord’s closest disciples — in a less honorable light than those who were members of the very council that executed Jesus, especially when such a tale could easily be tested for accuracy.
To summarize the case for the burial narrative:
(a) The apostles gave specific empirical details concerning Joseph’s tomb that could be proven or disproven.
(b) Their detractors conceded the accuracy of these details.
(c) The human elements in the narrative — viz., Roman magnanimity, Joseph’s clout, and Pilate’s misgivings — are consistent with anthropological studies.
(d) The description of Joseph’s tomb itself is also consistent with archeological data.
(e) And it is logical to think that the apostles were simply reporting the facts, for in so doing, they embarrassed themselves and complimented two members of the Sanhedrin — at least one of whom was a Pharisee.
Therefore, the account of the burial of Jesus in Joseph’s tomb is highly credible.
The Empty Tomb
The second piece of physical evidence is this: Jesus’ body was fully secured inside that tomb, which was empty on the third day.
The enemies of Christ knew that Jesus had predicted his resurrection. So, to prevent his disciples from stealing the body — making it seem as though he was resurrected when he was still dead — the authorities took custody of Jesus’ corpse.
The government first “sealed” the tomb
“by stretching a cord over the stone which blocked the entrance, spreading clay or wax on the cord, and then impressing it with a seal” (Edwards, p. 2709; cf. Mt. 27.66).
They next stationed a guard of soldiers at the tomb (Mt. 27.62-67).
However, within a few days after Jesus’ death, his disciples began announcing to the public that Jesus was resurrected.
His enemies could have easily refuted this claim by displaying Jesus’ corpse to the people, for it was locked securely inside a tomb that they were guarding. Lawyer John Montgomery remarked that it
“passes the bounds of credibility that the early Christians could have manufactured such a tale and then preached it among those who might easily have refuted it simply by producing the body of Jesus” (Montgomery, p. 78).
But they could not produce the body. The tomb was empty (Mt. 28.6; cf. Acts 2.29-32; 13.29-31).
Significantly, the early opponents of Christianity admitted that Jesus’ dead body was placed in a tomb that was empty three days later. That much was irrefutable.
However, instead of denying the physical evidence, the early critics of Christianity distorted the explanation for his missing body.
(1) Sleeping Guards
The earliest counter-explanation was that his disciples stole the body while the guards slept (Mt 28.12-15), a theory that continued among the Jews for centuries (cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho [cir. 165 A.D.], ch. 108).
This response is significant. Some today may dispute whether or not sentries were posted at the tomb, but the first-century Jewish skeptics did not. These hostile sources admitted:
(a) Jesus was dead;
(b) He was buried in Joseph’s tomb;
(c) The tomb was empty the third day after the crucifixion; and
(d) The guards were there.
Their admission of these four facts, which did not favor their case against the resurrection, reinforces the veracity of these details.
Nevertheless, the sleeping-guard theory is untenable.
First, while it is plausible for one soldier to fall asleep on guard duty, it is ludicrous to think they all nodded off concurrently. It is far more plausible to believe that the soldiers were bribed to spread a lie (Mt. 28.11-15).
Second, the penalty for sleeping on the night watch was severe.
Scourging, exile from the military, the country, or from one’s family, were not uncommon. But the death penalty was the usual punishment for such dereliction of duty (cf. Acts 12.19; see Currie, p. 50).
During the New Testament era, when military discipline was especially stringent, both the “fear of the law” (ibid., p. 47) and the
“fear of punishments produced faultless attention to duty, especially in the night watches” (ibid., p. 43).
This makes it even less credible that the soldiers were sleeping on duty. Not only would they have taken special care not to fall asleep on duty, but if they had fallen asleep, they never would have admitted it freely, for to do so would be to invite grave consequences. Philosopher William Paley observed that soldiers
“in their circumstances would not have made such an acknowledgment of their negligence without previous assurances of protection and impunity” (Paley, p. 229).
And since the soldiers were “made secure” from the wrath of the governor (Mt. 28.13-14), the most reasonable explanation is that they weren’t punished because they had not fallen asleep.
Third, when Jesus and his disciples were being arrested (cf. Mk. 14.51-52; Jn. 18.8), Peter violently defended the company (Mt. 26.51; Jn. 18.10). However, he ceased when rebuked by his master (Mt. 26.52). Then, when Jesus was arrested, the disciples “fled” (feugo—“fugitive”) for their lives, forsaking him due to fear (Mk. 14.50; cf. Jn. 20.19). Even Peter denied the Lord that night to save his own hide (Mt. 26.69-75).
Is it consistent with their temperament at this time — rebuked, stricken by dismay and fear, and unwilling to risk their lives to extract him from the guards when he was alive — for them to risk their lives to extract him from the guarded tomb when he was dead? How absurd is that?
Fourth, if the Jews believed the disciples had stolen the body, why were the disciples not immediately arrested? It was a crime to break a government seal (cf. Mt. 27.66) and plunder tombs.
Edward Gordon Selwyn further asked:
“Why were (the disciples) not compelled to give up the body? Or, in the event of their being unable to exculpate themselves from the charge, why were they not punished for their crime?…It is nowhere intimated that the rulers even attempted to substantiate the charge” (Smith, pp. 578-579).
Indeed, after Jesus’ death, his disciples were timid and in hiding. But after the resurrection, the disciples spent much time in Jerusalem, publicly worshiping at the temple “continually” (Lk. 24.53) and even teaching (Acts 1.12-2.1ff). Before the resurrection, they were fugitives on the run. After the resurrection, they were confident and free men!
Hence, the fact that the Jewish authorities failed to press charges against the disciples is tantamount to an admission of their innocence. Their words said that the disciples were felonious tomb raiders, but their actions said they knew otherwise.
Fifth, if the disciples stole Jesus’ corpse while the guards were sleeping, why did they strip him of his grave clothes first, which were left behind (Jn. 20.5)? Surely, it would have been more expedient — not to mention more dignified — to sneak into the tomb and snatch his body with his wrappings still on than to strip him naked first and then flee.
For that matter, why did they take time to fold his face cloth (Jn. 20.7)? Thieves get in and get out, especially with a sleeping guard nearby.
These incidental details, then, are inconsistent with the notion that the tomb was ransacked.
Sixth, even if all the guards had fallen asleep, the commotion caused by removing the “very large” stone (Mk. 16.4) and carrying out Jesus’ corpse would have woken them up.
And even if they slumbered through all that activity, how could the guards have possibly identified his disciples as the culprits? Sleeping folk make poor witnesses!
Finally, there was no motive for his disciples to steal Jesus’ corpse.
The disciples had no conception of the resurrection initially, being “greatly perplexed” by the empty tomb (Lk. 24.4).
At first, they thought someone else had taken the body (cf. Jn. 20.2, 9, 13; Lk. 24.11). And Thomas utterly refused to believe Jesus had been raised without physical evidence (Jn. 20.25).
These immediate reactions indicate that a plot to deceive the world that Jesus was resurrected was the furthest thing from their minds.
Montgomery put it like this:
“Who would have taken it? Surely not the Romans or the Jewish parties, for they wished at all costs to squelch the Christian sect. And certainly not the Christians, for to do so and then fabricate detailed accounts of Jesus’ resurrection would have been to fly in the face of the ethic their master preached and for which they ultimately died” (Montgomery, p. 77).
In short, the disciples had neither the motive, the means, nor the opportunity to commit such a theft. Yet his body was missing. If the friends of Christ didn’t take it, and the enemies of Christ didn’t take it, what happened to it?
(2) A Wily Gardener
In later centuries, disbelieving Jews revised the theory of the stolen body somewhat.
The sixth-century Jewish satire Toledot Yeshu admitted that after “a diligent search was made” for Jesus’ corpse, it was “not found in the grave where he had been buried.”
So where had it gone? Allegedly, it was taken out of the tomb, not by his disciples, but by a gardener who buried Jesus “in the sand over which the waters flowed into the garden” (Goldstein, pp. 148-154).
Isn’t it astonishing that these satirists were able to witness this gardener removing Jesus’ body six hundred years after the fact?
On the contrary, though Mary temporarily surmised that she was speaking to a gardener — wondering whether he had taken Jesus’ body elsewhere — this theory was quickly debunked (Jn. 20.15-18). There was no gardener there!
Again, the soldiers — whose sole task was to keep the body in the tomb — would have prevented a gardener (or anyone else) from taking it.
Besides, why would a gardener remove a corpse from a tomb — where dead bodies are meant to be — to disturb the very water source that hydrated his garden? This explanation makes about as much sense as a chocolate teapot!
(3) The Wrong Tomb
In the early nineteenth century, the English historian Kirsopp Lake realized how flimsy these stolen-body theories were, so he proffered a different explanation altogether.
Sure, the tomb the disciples visited was empty, but that is only because they went to the wrong tomb (see Lake, pp. 250ff).
Frankly, this explanation is even more unrealistic.
First, the tomb itself was in a distinctive location — in the garden near the crucifixion site (Jn. 19.41-42).
Second, it was a “new tomb” (Mt. 27.60), which would not have been obscured by vegetation as older gravesites are. New graves and tombs naturally stand out from the surrounding landscape.
Third, the presence of the guards would have made it impossible for his disciples to visit the wrong tomb (Mt. 28.1-11).
Fourth, the disciples were careful to mark the tomb’s location (Mt. 27.61; Mk. 15.47; Lk. 23.55). And even if they hadn’t, the Jewish authorities had, and they would have been eager to show people the rotting remains of their adversary. Besides, Joseph of Arimathea certainly would have known the location of his own tomb!
Fifth, the women went to the empty tomb at dawn (Mt. 28.1f). Then, the male disciples went to the same empty tomb on their own shortly thereafter (Jn. 20.3f). It is far-fetched to think that both groups independently went to the same wrong tomb.
Sixth, when the disciples arrived at the tomb, they observed the same “large stone” that had been rolled over the opening just days before (cf. Mt. 27.60-61; Mk. 16.3-4; Lk. 24.2).
Seventh, they saw Jesus’ grave clothes and the place where he lay (Mt. 28.6; Lk. 24.12; Jn. 20.5-7).
Most telling of all, the early opponents of Christianity conceded that they went to the right tomb, which they also conceded was empty. Indeed, German theologian Paul Althaus noted that the resurrection
“could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned” (Althaus, p. 22f).
Hence, we have a physical location, with a physical tomb, owned by a physical human being, authorized by a physical governor, guarded by physical soldiers, secured by a physical stone, in which a physical corpse was placed — a body now physically absent. Neither Jesus’ friends, nor his enemies, nor any other human being removed it. Yet there it was — the empty tomb, for which there is no satisfying natural explanation.
The Eyewitness Evidence
The evidence that Jesus was killed, buried in a secured tomb, and gone from that tomb on the third day is irresistible.
But so what? Even the enemies of Christ conceded these points. This still does not prove that Jesus was resurrected.
Indeed, even though there is no satisfying natural explanation for the empty tomb, perhaps the tomb was empty simply because God made the body disappear? In other words, the empty tomb, while necessary, does not sufficiently prove that Jesus was brought back to life bodily.
This is where the testimonial evidence plays a critical role.
To be clear, no human being witnessed the exact moment Jesus returned to life. However, this does not bode against the case for his resurrection.
In scientific investigations, analysts and detectives piece together evidence after the fact all the time. For example, no human being ever witnessed the death of the Berezovka mammoth, which was found near Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1900. However, scientists can analyze the excavation data and put together its final moments, including its final meal (Mictlan, 2021).
Even so, we have hundreds of eyewitnesses — including those who were friendly to Christ (but doubted him) as well as those who were hostile to him — who testified unanimously that they witnessed Jesus physically alive again after his death. If that testimony is true, then the case for his resurrection stands proven (Acts 1.3). Consider.
The Early Foundation
First of all, the report of Jesus’ resurrection began the very day of its occurrence (Mt. 28.8-10; Mk. 16.10-11; Lk. 24.9f).
It was the core subject of the very first Christian sermon after Jesus’ death just weeks later — a sermon preached in Jerusalem, where all these events had transpired (Acts 2.22-36). And the witnesses repeated this testimony a while later in the temple complex (Acts 3.15). Based on this testimony, thousands of Jews became Christians just weeks after Jesus’ death (cf. Acts 2.41; 4.4).
In fact, in just a few months, the disciples of Christ had spread their testimony about Jesus’ “resurrection from the dead” so much that the Jewish leaders said they “filled Jerusalem” with the news (Acts 5.28; cf. Acts 4.2ff).
Later, the apostle Peter testified to Cornelius that the disciples “ate and drank with” Jesus “after he arose from the dead” (Acts 10.41; cf. Lk. 24.30, 41–43). Hence, his resurrection was not merely a symbolic or spiritual event.
Paul also reported that “God raised” Jesus “from the dead,” after which
“he was seen for many days by those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are His witnesses to the people” (Acts 13.31).
It was this claim that rescued the Christian movement from rack and ruin; this claim that changed Jewish society within months, Roman society within years, and the entire world within centuries. The resurrection of Christ was a veritable Krakatoa — a spiritual explosion that sent shock waves all across the globe, the effects of which are still being felt at the present hour.
The resurrection of Christ was embraced and uniformly preached as a matter of “first importance” right from the start (1 Cor. 15.3, ESV).
Indeed, the four-fold gospel formula that Paul documented in 1 Corinthians 15.3-4 — viz., that Christ died, was buried, was raised the third day, and was seen by hundreds thereafter — was something he himself “received” as a confession of faith at or near his conversion in the mid-30s A.D. (cf. Acts 9.1ff). Thus it predated Paul’s conversion.
On this basis, a few scholars suggest that the content of 1 Corinthians 15.3-8 — with its verse-like form — was created and “in use by the end of 30 AD” (Kasper, p. 125), the very year of Jesus’ death.
Professor James Dunn remarks that
“this tradition (1 Cor. 15.3-8, AP), we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’ death” (Dunn, p. 855).
Even the skeptical scholar Gerd Lüdemann noted that
“the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33” A.D. (Lüdemann, p. 38).
And according to Professor Joachim Jeremias (1900-1979), among Christians, the content of 1 Corinthians 15.3-8 was “the earliest tradition of all” (Jeremias, p. 306).
Hence, the report of Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and appearances did not stem from a legend developed over decades, when the details could no longer be authenticated. It was an entrenched conviction — a fundamental tenet among the followers of Christ — right at the foundation of the movement.
The Variety Of Witnesses
Second, the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus were not arcane experiences involving one or two individuals who claimed to see Jesus in the corner of their eyes, from whom the report snowballed without substantiation.
Rather, Jesus appeared bodily to hundreds of people, sometimes to individuals, other times to groups, both small and large.
He appeared to Mary Magdalene, who clung to Jesus’ body as she hugged him (Jn. 20.10-18). He also appeared to Peter sometime that same day (Lk 24.34; 1 Cor. 15.5).
That morning, Jesus visited several women, who “held him by the feet and worshiped him” (Mt. 28.9-10).
He also visited Cleopas and another disciple, who walked with him, talked with him, and ate with him that afternoon (Mk. 16.12-13; Lk. 24.13-35).
Later that evening, he appeared to the apostles (minus Thomas) and several other disciples, where he rebuked them for their doubts, but then encouraged them to “touch” his hands and feet, demonstrating that he was not a mere “spirit,” “for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Lk. 24.36-40; cf. Mk. 16.14-18; Jn. 20.19-23; 1 Cor. 15.5).
A week later, he came to the apostles again, and this time Thomas, who refused to believe unless he empirically witnessed Jesus for himself, was present (Jn. 20.26-28). He prompted this erstwhile skeptic to touch his scars so that he would no longer disbelieve (Jn. 20.27).
He visited with seven apostles by the Sea of Galilee, where they ate together (Jn. 21.1-23).
Later, more than five hundred people saw him at one time (1 Cor. 15.6).
After that, Jesus appeared to his half-brother James, who was an unbeliever (cf. 1 Cor. 15.7; Jn. 7.5; Mk. 3.21).
He next appeared to the eleven apostles on a mountain in Galilee, where he gave them the Great Commission (Mt. 28.16-20), and again on the Mount of Olives before his ascension (Lk. 24.50-52; Acts 1.4-9).
Stephen saw him too (Acts 7.55-56).
The bigoted persecutor Saul also saw him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9.3-6), to whom he appeared again later in the temple (Acts 22.17-21) and then in prison at Caesarea (Acts 23.11).
And John saw him again on the island of Patmos (Rev. 1.12-20).
Thus, there were private appearances and group appearances. Men saw him; women saw him. There were friends who doubted him and foes who opposed him (e.g., James, Paul). And they were each able to see him, hear him, and touch him.
It is preposterous to think all of these eyewitnesses were just hallucinating.
First, hallucinations are private experiences. They cannot be seen or shared by others — i.e., they are not collective occurrences.
Yet, hundreds of people testified that they saw him alive after his death on the same occasions. And they reported consistent details — i.e., that Jesus said this and did that. That is not how hallucinations work.
Second, hallucinations occur in individuals who are either mentally ill, drugged, or in an extreme state of wishful thinking. Yet the people who witnessed Jesus’ post-mortem appearances were in none of these states of mind.
Peter, the hard-headed fisherman, was in a state of denial, remorse, and doubt when he witnessed the resurrected Christ (cf. Mt. 26.69-75; Lk. 24.36-41).
Thomas and James (the Lord’s brother) were skeptics and unbelievers when they claimed to see Jesus after his death (cf. Jn. 20.24-29; 7.5; 1 Cor. 15.7)
Saul of Tarsus was a bigoted hater when he witnessed the lord (Acts 9.1ff).
Hence, none of these men were mentally ill, drugged, or expecting Jesus to be alive — quite the contrary!
John Stott (1921-2011) wrote:
“Far from being gullible and easily led, the disciples were cautious, skeptical and “slow to believe.” They were not susceptible to hallucinations. Nor would strange visions have satisfied them. Their faith was grounded upon the hard facts of verifiable experience" (Stott, p. 68).
Wilbur Smith (1894-1976) put it like this:
“These appearances could not have been produced…by the feverish imagination created by brooding over the hope that they would soon see the risen Lord, for they had no such hope. They were disappointed and downcast, knowing He had died, and believing they would never see Him again on earth” (Smith, p. 389).
Third, hallucinations are intangible experiences. Yet the eyewitnesses reported being able to touch him. That is inconsistent with a mental apparition.
Finally, hallucinations still don’t explain the empty tomb.
If indeed they all hallucinated the same experiences, Jesus’ body should still be in the tomb. But the tomb was empty. As Smith observes, the empty tomb and the appearances
“are corollaries…We can only have true appearances of Christ in His own body after the resurrection if the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is empty, and that it was empty allows for the appearances, and the appearances explain the empty tomb. Had anyone carried away the body of Christ, the post-resurrection appearances of the Savior would have been impossible. Together the testimonies for these two stupendous facts form, indeed, a mass of evidence that can never be destroyed with any of the laws of literary criticism, or of logic, known to man. They have, consequently, stood the fiercest opposition, investigation, and criticism, of at least (twenty) successive centuries” (Smith, p. 398).
Lee Strobel was a legal affairs journalist “who has covered scores of trials, both criminal and civil” (Strobel, p. 237).
In his investigative book, The Case For Christ, Strobel examines the eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances from the standpoint of a trial. He concludes:
“The amount of testimony and corroboration of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances is staggering. To put it into perspective, if you were to call each one of the witnesses to a court of law to be cross-examined for just fifteen minutes each, and you went around the clock without a break, it would take you from breakfast on Monday until dinner on Friday to hear them all. After listening to 129 straight hours of eyewitness testimony, who could possibly walk away unconvinced?” (ibid.).
He then quoted Sir Edward Clarke, “a British High Court judge who conducted a thorough legal analysis of the” resurrection of Christ:
“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. As a lawyer, I accept the gospel evidence unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to facts that they were able to substantiate” (ibid.).
An Impossible Cover-Up
Third, let us suppose that these hundreds of eyewitnesses — both friendly, skeptical, and adversarial — all conspired to perpetuate a lie. How could they have possibly covered up that lie?
The disciples reported specific and numerous details concerning the death, burial, resurrection, and appearances of Christ. That is not how liars usually operate.
Besides, the amount and quality of these details would have been easy to expose if they were false.
Chuck Colson was the White House special counsel during the Watergate scandal. His experience in that role helped him see how credible the account of the resurrection of Jesus is. He wrote:
“Here were the 10 most powerful men in the United States. With all that power, and we couldn’t contain a lie for two weeks…Take it from one who was involved in conspiracy, who saw the frailty of man firsthand. There is no way the 11 apostles, who were with Jesus at the time of the resurrection, could ever have gone around for 40 years proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection unless it were true” (Hyer, 1983).
Fourth, the resurrection accounts are filled with unembellished — and even embarrassing — details that lend credibility to the reports. Consider a few.
(1) During these three days, the male disciples fled in fear; some denied him, others refused to believe in him. Meanwhile, the female disciples stood by him through the entire process.
Hence, the male disciples who wrote the gospel narratives admitted they were cowardly and slow to believe, while the women were courageous and quick to believe. That juxtaposition does not have the air of embellishment about it.
Indeed, liars usually lie to make themselves look good; but the disciples often look bad in the gospel narratives. The most reasonable explanation for this is that they were simply documenting what happened.
(2) Female testimony was customarily invalid in ancient Jewish society (see Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:8).
However, the gospel writers make the female disciples the first to witness and give testimony to the resurrection of Christ (Mt. 28.1ff; Mk. 16.9ff; Lk. 24.9ff; Jn. 20.11ff). If the disciples were fabricating the case, they never would have presented the testimony of women as evidence, let alone have used such testimony first.
Again, the best explanation for this is that they were simply recounting the facts, regardless of how embarrassing or taboo those facts may have been.
(3) The post-resurrection discussions between Jesus and his disciples are often so ordinary they are almost mundane.
For example, the very first words that Jesus says after his resurrection were neither grandiose nor eloquent (e.g., I am triumphant! Death is swallowed up in victory!).
Rather, seeing Mary crying, Jesus simply asked: “Madam, why are you weeping?” (Jn. 20.14-15).
Likewise, when Jesus visited seven of his disciples on the Sea of Galilee, he asked them: “Do you have anything to eat?” (cf. Jn. 21.5).
Indeed, Jesus’ post-resurrection conversations lack all embellishments. They are natural and down-to-earth. In them, Jesus cheers his disciples up, gives them confidence in the “certainty” of his resurrection (Lk. 1.4), helps them understand why his death was necessary, and prepares them for the long and arduous mission ahead.
In short, the unembellished reporting of self-embarrassing, taboo, and even mundane details surrounding the resurrection is much more consistent with witnesses who tell the hard truth than with those who make up the most grandiose lie that has ever been told.
The Transformation of the Disciples
Fifth, John Stott suggested that the change in the lives of the disciples after the resurrection is perhaps “the greatest evidence of all for the resurrection because it is entirely uncontrived” (Stott, p. 70).
(1) The disciples went from being timid fugitives to confident preachers. Something caused this dramatic and swift shift.
(2) Thomas was a cold skeptic after Jesus’ death. Yet something made him confess just a week later that Jesus was his “Lord and God” (Jn. 20.28).
James, the Lord’s half-brother, not only did not believe in his brother (Jn. 7.5), he thought Jesus was “out of his mind” (Mk. 3.21). Yet he later regarded himself as the “bondservant of our God and lord, Jesus Christ” (Jm. 1.1). Could the fact that Jesus “was seen by James” after his death have something to do with this extraordinary about-face (1 Cor. 15.7)?
Saul of Tarsus was a murderous persecutor of Christ and his disciples (Acts 8.1ff; 9.1). Yet a few years later this same man “who formerly persecuted (Christians) now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy” (Gal. 1.23). Only something significant — viz., the resurrection and appearance of Jesus (Acts 9.1ff) — could have made someone who so despised Christ transform into his greatest defender.
(3) As Jews, the disciples of Christ grew up observing the Sabbath day (the last day of the week).
However, after the resurrection, they began worshiping on “the first day of the week,” the day of the Lord’s resurrection (cf. Mt. 28.1; Acts 2.1ff; 20.7; 1 Cor. 16.2).
They preached that the death and resurrection of Christ “abolished…the law of commandments” (Eph. 2.15-16; Col. 2.13-14), arguing that we are no longer amenable to the Mosaic code as law (cf. 2 Cor. 3.3-16; Heb. 8.6-13). And since that is so, these Jewish Christians were no longer concerned when their fellow unbelieving Jews “judged” them for failing to keep the “sabbaths” (Col. 2.16).
Indeed, nine of the ten commandments are reinstated in the Law of Christ. However, the fourth commandment — keeping the Sabbath holy — is conspicuously absent. So instead of keeping the Sabbath each week, they began commemorating Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection every first day of the week (Acts 20.7; see “The Timing of the Communion”).
Why would faithful Jews break from this Sabbath tradition so sharply, if not for a world-changing event like the resurrection?
(4) Formerly, the Jewish disciples of Christ practiced circumcision strictly. However, after the resurrection, they no longer regarded it as a sacred duty.
“Was anyone called while uncircumcised,” asked Paul, a Jew. “Let him not be circumcised.” Why not? Because “circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters” (1 Cor. 7.18; cf. Gal. 5.6; 6.15; Col. 3.11).
Hence, the Jewish disciples of Christ went from believing that circumcision was a command of God to believing it isn’t anymore. What can account for this change, if not the resurrection of Christ?
(5) These Jewish Christians also gave up on animal sacrifices.
Instead, they began proclaiming the all-sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ, of which the resurrection was the guarantee (cf. Rm. 5.6-11; Heb. 9.11-28; 10.1ff).
Make no mistake: These were some of the most cherished beliefs among the Jewish people. They had been ingrained in Jewish society for more than fifteen hundred years, and ancient traditions meant something to these people. The best explanation for such monumental changes in Jewish society is that something even more monumental stood at the fountainhead.
The Integrity of the Disciples
Finally, since the disciples did not create a myth over time but gave testimony as “eyewitnesses” from the beginning (2 Pt. 1.16; cf. 1 Jn. 1.1-4), and since they weren’t merely mistaken (having hallucinated the whole thing) but had tangible and collective experiences of the resurrected Jesus, then is it possible the disciples were just liars?
Let’s briefly explore their character.
First, these men were not gullible, but neither were they deceitful. They would stand the test of credibility in any modern-day court of law.
In his book, The New Testament and the Laws of Evidence, Dr. Harry Rimmer (1890-1952) includes a chapter detailing “The integrity of the witnesses” of Jesus Christ (Rimmer, pp. 43-67). Take Matthew as an example.
As a tax collector (Mt. 10.3), Matthew was someone who was
“able to detect fraud and evasion instantly. Every trick, every subterfuge, and every wile that fraud and dishonesty could suggest to an embittered people who counted it a worthy thing to defraud a despotic government was known to the man Matthew. The honesty of Jesus Christ was never more manifested than when He picked such a man to be a witness of the strange and startling events of His Messianic ministry!…The sincerity of Jesus Christ and the credibility of Matthew both stand attested by a simple and honest examination of the character and integrity of this one witness” (ibid., pp. 53-54).
At the close of his chapter, he reminds us that, “in trials of fact…”
“every witness is to be presumed credible until the contrary is shown, the burden of impeaching his credibility lying upon the objector…[W]e have in the first four books of the New Testament, not four Gospels, but one Gospel presented by four independent witnesses, whose integrity is attested and whose evidence cannot be refuted.
It is highly probable that their record is true, as they died to defend their thesis.
They have produced competent and satisfactory evidence, according to all the demands of honest court procedure.
Since no single circumstance has ever been established that generates suspicion against them or their testimony, their credibility is established until such time as the objector can impeach it with overwhelming proof” (ibid., pp. 66-67).
Their competency as eyewitnesses is credible.
Second, the disciples of Christ lionized the truth. Indeed, honesty is an integral part of what it means to be a follower of Christ.
We are to “put away falsehood” and “speak truth with (our) neighbor” (Eph. 4.25; cf. Eph. 4.15).
“Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds…” (Col. 3.9).
Integrity, honor, and a “good conscience” — these are hallmarks of the Christian faith (Heb. 13.18; Acts 24.16; 2 Cor. 4.2; 8.21).
Third, these men did more than just preach the necessity of honesty, they practiced what they preached. They told the truth, even when doing so cost them dearly.
Some people will suffer and die for what they believe in, even if it is false. But a conspiracy of liars will not all die for something they know they made up. Someone — if not all of them — would have fessed up when faced with severe suffering and death. But they never did.
Colson — of the Watergate scandal — noted that
“‘had the New Testament account not been true…Peter would have been exactly like John Dean’ who, he said, led a parade of White House aides who talked to prosecutors to ‘save their own skins.’ If the apostles' story about the resurrection had begun to unravel, as the Watergate cover-up did, Colson said: ‘The apostles would have sold out to save their skins." (Hyer, loc. cit.).
James Rosscup noted that
“the disciples were men of honor and could not have foisted a lie upon the people. They spent the rest of their lives proclaiming the message of the resurrection, as cowards transformed into men of courage. They were willing to face arrest, imprisonment, beating, and horrible deaths, and not one of them ever denied the Lord and recanted of his belief that Christ had risen" (McDowell, 2006, p. 332).
Indeed, these men did not become Christians because it was a life of comfort and prosperity. They sacrificed everything. The notion that this band of men — some of whom were friendly to Christ, others skeptical, and others adversarial — all conspired together to thrust a hoax onto the world is inconsistent with their character and with the modus operandi of liars and conspirators.
Harvard law professor Simon Greenleaf summarizes the testimonial evidence for Jesus’ resurrection:
“All that Christianity asks of men… is that they would be consistent with themselves; that they would treat its evidences as they treat the evidence of other things; and that they would try and judges its actors and witnesses as they deal with their fellow men when testifying to human affairs and actions in human tribunals. Let the witnesses be compared with themselves, with each other, and with surrounding facts and circumstances; and let their testimony be sifted as if it were given in a court of justice on the side of the adverse party, the witness being subjected to rigorous cross-examination. The result, it is confidently believed, will be in undoubting conviction of their integrity, ability, and truth” (Greenleaf, p. 46).
Jesus died. He was buried in a tomb that was secured with a “very large” stone, sealed with a government stamp, and guarded by soldiers. That tomb was empty the third day after burial. And hundreds of eyewitnesses of varying backgrounds and opinions about Christ testified that they saw, heard, and felt Jesus alive in the flesh after his death, all of whom were willing to suffer and die for that testimony.
Why be a Christian? Surely not because it is easy or nice. Christianity can be quite confrontational (cf. Mt. 23.1ff; 1 Tim. 5.20; 2 Tim. 4.1-8; Tit. 1.3; Jude 3), demanding considerable personal sacrifice (cf. Lk. 9.24; 14.25-33; Acts 14.22; 2 Tim. 3.12).
Rather, despite all hostility, a genuine Christian knows that the case for Christ is irresistibly true. The facts are historically documented. The physical evidence is thoroughly established. The character of the witnesses still stands unimpeachable.
To refuse Christ is to say that Jesus was false in his claims, that the character of Christ is disreputable, that the testimony of John is worthless, the miracles of Christ never really happened, the heavenly father’s testimony is unreliable (or unreal), and the hundreds of precise prophecies about the Messiah are mere coincidences. It is further to say that the resurrection was either a legend, a hallucination, or a hoax, neither of which stands the test of reasonable scrutiny. Indeed, it is more absurd to dismiss the evidence for the claims of Christ than it is to embrace it.
Conversely, to accept Christ is to discover the truth of our past, to acquire peace of mind and heart in the present, and to develop hope for the future.
Study the New Testament for yourself. But do not do so thinking it is just a collection of myths or fairytales. Rather, examine it without bias. Read it the way it was meant to be read — as a collection of letters documenting reality. And witness the vitality and authenticity of their accounts on your own.
Indeed, you have vastly more to gain by such an examination than to lose.
Why not keep studying? Move on to part 4: