Question: Can you please share the evidence for the belief in the resurrection of Christ?
To answer this question one must systematically review the events of the resurrection and the claims made against it. Although this is something I plan to do in a thorough fashion in a future post, at this time I will seek to address this question with some preliminary structure that can set the stage for assurance in this historical event.
Firstly, we must begin with the Word of God spoken through Paul to understand the significance of this topic (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 12-20):
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”
“But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
We can clearly see the significance placed on such an event as to the centrality of Christianity. The Old Testament laid the pattern for atonement and we see the fulfillment of this in the final perfect atonement in Christ. He had to die and pour out (Isaiah 53:12) His life to pay the ransom for all mankind (1 Timothy 2:5-7, Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45). Christ didn’t just come, as many other religious leaders, to merely teach but He came to save (Luke 19:10) and the way to save was to die first (Hebrews 9:15). As we can see, Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Paul uses the language of transmission when he states “For what I received I passed on to you…” clearly showing his receipt of this information from the disciples. As some have accused the resurrection to be a story of myth, we must be clear when this account takes place. Myths have been recorded to develop over several hundred years and this excerpt from Scripture has been said to be written at a maximum of 3-5 years after the death of Jesus. Some New Testament scholars, such as James Dunn, have said it comes within months of Jesus’ death. This earliest recorded creed of the church is important as it demonstrates that legend could not creep in and speaks directly against those who claim the resurrection story and Christ’s death for the redemption of our sins was a concept conjured up by the later day church.
5 historical facts that we can ascribe to about Jesus that the majority of Christian and non-Christian scholars agree to:
- Died by crucifixion on a Roman cross
- Buried by Joseph of Arimathea
- Tomb of Jesus was discovered to be empty
- Post-mortem appearances to disciples
- Catalyst for Christianity
On the whole, each group or faction that discounts the truth of the full story of Jesus’ death and resurrection focuses on explaining away the events above via naturalistic methods but they do not attack these accepted historical facts. Some (mainly Islam) have presented a variation on the above stating that Jesus was transfigured (soul was taken before His body died) or that He swooned on the cross (passed out and wasn’t really dead). The first is mere speculation as I could simply say that about anyone who dies and no evidence is presented for this view. The latter, swoon theory, is one that can be refuted quite quickly when we look to the facts. We will address both these views shortly but first let us lay the foundation for our understanding of the aforementioned 5 historically attested facts.
1) Died by crucifixion on a Roman cross
The death of Christ on the cross was the most public event of His life. The event that changed history for all mankind as God Himself hung on a cross from 9am to 3pm. That monumental day was an easily observable and accepted historical fact. When we look to Jesus on the cross we also see something unique as Roman soldiers typically would break the legs of those that hung on the cross (as they did with the two thieves that hung alongside Jesus) to ensure death. The reason for this was that when hanging on the cross, the crucified would lift themselves up on the footstep of the cross to open up their rib cage thus allowing them to breath. However, Jesus did not have His legs broken which is significant for 3 reasons:
- It fulfilled the prophecy in Psalm 34:20
- It served as an archetype reflected from Exodus 12:46 where the Passover lamb was not to have bones broken (Christ was called the lamb of God – John 1:29)
- Jesus must have been dead so there was no need to break His legs.
Now, one may ask the logical question of how we can be certain that the Roman soldiers didn’t err in their assessment of Jesus’ death. We must recognize this is what they did day in and day out. They also would have received a harsh penalty if they had made an error. Most significantly we can look to the thorough approach taken when one of the soldiers took his spear and pierced the side of Jesus (John 19:33-34). This is significant because we see that piercing Jesus’ side resulted in a “sudden flow of blood and water”. Why is this important? Why is water mentioned? Cardiologists today understand that what this must have been was the pericardial fluid that surrounds the heart that would have been created with the great anxiety and stress as Jesus hung on the cross. In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published their findings on the death of Jesus and stated that this would have been a sure sign of cardiovascular collapse. On a side note, it is interesting that out of Adam’s side God, created woman and out of Jesus’ side comes the birth of His bride the church (Ephesians 5:25-27, Revelation 19:7-9, Revelation 21:1-2).
Additionally, I suggest reading Isaiah 53 and asking yourself who this passage speak of – does it not clearly speak of Jesus as the Christ.
2) Buried by Joseph of Arimathea
The burial of Christ is important because it supports this understanding that He was pronounced clinically dead (not that we need more evidence after His side was pierced). It is interesting that the person who supervised and prepared the burial of Jesus was Joseph of Arimathea, the Sandhedrist, who was a member of the council that condemned Jesus. Joseph was a secret follower of Jesus and a wealthy man, which allowed yet another prophecy (Isaiah 53:9) to be fulfilled (yet another prophecy which Jesus could not influence). The importance of this fact coupled with the traditions of the first century where the tomb of a priest/rabbi would have been marked gives us assurance that people of the day knew where the tomb was. This is contrary to what some have suggested by saying that the followers of Jesus merely went to the wrong tomb – this is not possible because the burial location was known to by all.
Eyewitnesses were also of a curious nature in this case – they were women. In that day and age, women’s testimonies were not legally binding, let alone valued as credible, and yet God chose to have the first witnesses of His resurrection and His burial to be women. This shows God’s value of women in advance of societies (á la the Samaritan woman by the well (John 4)). It is quite likely that Joseph was also present at Jesus’ burial since it was his tomb.
3) Tomb of Jesus was discovered to be empty
The uniqueness of this event speaks to the authenticity in and of itself. The idea that Christ would be resurrected 3 days after His death was not fully understood. As such, the notion that people would invent this event doesn’t make sense because it was such a foreign concept to them. The texts of all the Gospels and Acts agree that the tomb was empty but it is also interesting to see Mary’s reaction to the tomb being empty. She wasn’t a crazy person as she didn’t jump to the conclusion of an empty tomb meaning the Christ was risen (remember this concept was foreign to them except for the final resurrection at judgment (John 11:24)). Mary actually asks the supposed gardener where the body is (John 20:15) because that is the logical question, “Where is the body?” She only later realizes it is Jesus Himself. Also, notice the disciples after His death were in a defeated state and as such, didn’t intend to conjure up this mythical concept nor expect it to occur (Mark 16:11-14).
4) Post-mortem appearances to disciples
From the lyrics of Shai Linne’s (one of my favourite musicians) song “Jesus is Alive”
“The risen Christ seen by 500 eye-witnesses
Imagine 500 people in a court of law
Each of them taking the stand reporting what they saw
If their stories lined up and made sense
The evidence would have to leave you convinced
But still it’s by faith that we trust and praise the Son
Who was raised for our justification”
Jesus appeared to different individuals, groups of people, and in different places to give us ample evidence for the 2nd half of the resurrection belief equation. It is the historical formula that we appreciate:
empty tomb + post-mortem appearances = resurrection belief.
Some say that these people may have hallucinated but we must consider a few aspects of the post-mortem appearances to address this faulty thinking:
- Why would Paul see Jesus since he hated Him?
- Why would Peter project this myth when this wasn’t expected? Peter would have been angry he followed the “Messiah” for 3 years only to have the supposed Messiah die.
- Most powerfully, hallucinations do not occur in groups. They are an individual phenomena related to some form of sensory modality (e.g. visual, auditory) with a lack of stimuli.
5) Catalyst for Christianity
Let us build on the equation: empty tomb + post-mortem appearances = resurrection belief ∴ Christian Movement
(∴ means therefore)
If you study the 1st century history of Judaism, all the movements held certain messianic views and traits in common. Historical figures, such as Judas the Galilean, always rose as military figures (e.g. against Romans). Whenever messianic figures led a rebellion and were suppressed, two responses occurred:
- The movement disbanded
- The members joined another movement to continue the cause (e.g. same as modern day militant Islam). No one made claims of a messiah who rose again and lives.
The disciples’ reactions after the resurrection was a complete reversal from fearful to bold and courageous and is especially telling. They all turned and realized the meaning of all that was said by Jesus when He was their rabbi. The disciples would not have died for a perpetuated lie, nor would they have changed and devoted their lives after they had already retracted following Jesus’ death.
Concise Listing of Resurrection Evidences (in no particular order)
- Time factor – Immediacy of documentation does not allow myth/legend to be created.
- Honesty of Gospel writers – Women were the first recorded eye witnesses, no signs of collusion but consistent agreement on fundamentals
- Radical change in disciples – Change from a defeated and hopeless estate to a bold personality, leading to martyrdom (also see Paul (Acts 9, 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8) and James’ conversion (John 7:5, 1 Corinthians 15:7)). Note martyrdom alone doesn’t prove truth, but only that the martyrs believed it to be truth (i.e. they weren’t con artists as some suggest)
- Unexpectancy of event – Jews and disciples didn’t expect this therefore they couldn’t invent it. Christianity didn’t exist until the day of Pentecost so “Christians” couldn’t have invented it either.
- Significance of Sunday – Became a special day only after the resurrection (John 20:1, Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2, Revelation 1:10)
- Ordinances of the Christian church – Baptism and Lord’s suppers instituted as memorials (Romans 6:3-9, Colossians 2:12). Jewish traditions fulfilled to show deliverance from sin to salvation.
- Eye witnesses – 500+ people in different places at different times to testify. Furthermore, no disagreements or disputes on the facts recorded at the time. Jews would very much like to have found the body to quash the risen Messiah news.
- Medical analysis – Scourging, crown of thorns, crucifixion, pierced heart, 3 days without medical attention combine to present death and resurrection as a certainty.
- Empty tomb – Guards would have paid the death penalty if they had failed to protect the tomb as tomb robbery was common and they would have been prepared.
- Linguistic – Greek words “soma” (body) and “anastasis” (resurrection) always used as reference to physical body (cannot be just a spiritual resurrection).
Responding to the critics
After laying the groundwork above, we can look at some specific alternative theories that have been presented and you can apply the above facts/logic to address each. I will provide some quick thoughts on each but will not spend time refuting each aspect of each claim as it will require repeating the evidences outlined above (and this post will be even longer :P). Suffice it to say, each of the points above will address nuances of each theory below and debunk them.
1. Swoon theory / apparent death theory
a. Claim: Jesus swooned (passed out) on the cross and was not really dead (view held by Ahmadiyya Muslims – click here to watch debate on the topic “Did Jesus Die on the Cross?”)
b. Heavy scourging and spear thrust in heart would have most certainly killed Jesus
c. Jesus would not survive in tomb due to exposure to the elements, would not be able to escape the tomb due to the heavy disc blocking the tomb (requires 6-8 men to move it), not to mention the security at the tomb (they anticipated a potential body snatch (Matthew 27:62-66))
2. Substitution theory
a. Claim: Someone other than Jesus died on the cross
b. Classic Islamic interpretation based on the Qur’an (4:157-158). Potential candidates being Judas or Simon of Cyrene (Who was helping Jesus carry His cross) or a rabbi
c. Other critics who hold to this view would argue since someone else died on the cross it would explain how the disciples (after seeing Jesus) assumed He had died and risen again
d. This view was also held by some Gnostics. (theory called the “laughing saviour”)
e. Several of Jesus followers were eye witnesses (Matthew 27:56). Doesn’t explain Jesus’ appearances with wounds post-mortem or what happened to the body. Please see previous evidences as this theory has very little rationale.
3. Conspiracy theory
a. Claim: The disciples conspired to steal the body of Jesus out of the tomb and invented the story.
b. Resurrected body can defy space and time… appears and disappears and enters locked upper room (so how can someone else appear as a fake resurrected body but still defy laws of nature?)
c. Was the first attempted explanation for the empty tomb (Matthew 28:11-15). They don’t deny empty tomb but try to explain it away.
d. Why would disciples die for this lie?
e. Once again look to previous evidences.
4. Wrong tomb theory
a. Claim: Women went to the wrong tomb on Easter morning and declared that Jesus was raised again.
b. Jesus’ burial was witnessed and thus His burial site was known.
c. Religious leaders would have destroyed the resurrection claim by finding the real tomb and producing the body of Jesus.
5. Hallucination theory
a. Claim: Disciples hallucinated seeing Jesus alive again after His death.
b. This does not explain how entire groups witnessed Him post-mortem or Paul’s calling/conversion.
c. Eye witnesses could touch and hear Jesus and Jesus Himself takes food and eats it.
d. Jesus singles Thomas out because He knew Thomas was a sceptic (John 20:25). Thomas doubted and verified the appearance to his satisfaction. Notice that nowhere does it say Thomas touched Him? That is why Jesus says “because you have seen me, you have believed” (John 20:29). (Side note: This shows a characteristic of Jesus’ deity as He knew Thomas’ doubt even without being present when Thomas shared it with the disciples (John 20:25))
e. Jesus blesses women as He attained His humanity from Mary and He went to women as the first eye witnesses.
i. John and Peter ran to empty tomb (John 20:1-9). John, the younger one, got there first and he may have seen an empty dry cocoon, not a torn untangled shroud (click here and read footnote 12sn for details). John then believed when he saw the cloth was whole. Peter still isn’t certain of the resurrection being true and goes in to verify (demonstrates Peter’s desire to verify). Notice how they still didn’t understand that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead (John 20:9) – they weren’t ready to make up a story nor ready to accept a hallucination without first verifying the evidence.
f. Hallucinations do not explain an empty tomb.
6. Twin theory
a. Claim: Jesus had a twin brother who was separated at birth. He came to Jerusalem on Passover week, threw Jesus’ body out of the tomb, pretended He was Jesus and the disciples declared Jesus risen from the dead.
b. Problem is no twin was ever recorded. The Gospel of Thomas, called Thomas Didymus a twin of Jesus because the name (didymus) means twin. However, this gospel has never been received as authentic even by non-Christian academics and was likely written in 140 AD – far beyond Thomas’ lifetime. Oddly then, Jesus appeared to Thomas and so would have appeared to the person that he actually was… confused? I am.
c. This theory is highly improbable because it has no rational basis and doesn’t address the evidence.
7. Legend Theory
a. Claim: Early Christians believed that Jesus was exalted and His spirit was taken directly to heaven. The theory states that the resurrection was a later invention of the Church and not part of the original Christian message.
b. This confuses the immortality of the soul with the resurrection of the body.
c. It also doesn’t address the immediacy of the texts, what the disciples and early church fathers knew and all the evidences above.
8. Pagan dependence theory
a. Claim: Resurrection of Jesus was taken from Greco-Roman stories of dying and rising gods
b. Stories of dying and rising gods in Paganism were based on the personification of the crop cycle (fall / spring). Jesus died in the spring and rose again in the spring not the next season later.
c. Stories of dying and rising gods post-date Christianity, so the borrowing was the other way around.
The evidence is strong. The historical facts are true. The events are logical. The eye witnesses are present. The disciples are clear. The Scriptures are absolute. The conclusion is undeniable – that Jesus Christ “died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
References: The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright, Teachings from Rev. Tony Costa