The central event of the Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus. Yes, this is a miracle – dead people do not come back to life without a miracle. But if there is a God, who created the universe and everything in it, then this kind of miracle has to be a possibility. But is there any evidence? In fact, there is very good historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Here we will briefly summarise the case in four points:
- Jesus died on the cross. This is not particularly controversial. It was accepted by non-Christians like Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian and the writers of the Talmud (see previous essay). It is, of course, also the unanimous testimony of Christian sources. A modern medical appraisal of the historical evidence also concluded that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross: On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ (PDF).
- Jesus was buried in a tomb. This is also not particularly controversial. The earliest Christian preachers described Jesus being laid in a tomb (Acts 13:28-29). The gospels record how Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus and laid it in his tomb (Mark 15:46; Matt 27:59-60; Luke 23:53; John 19:41-42). The early reverence of a tomb in Jerusalem (whether or not this is actually the tomb of Jesus) is another witness of the type of burial given to Jesus.
- Three days later the tomb of Jesus was empty. This is important because for both Jews and pagans “resurrection” (anastasis) meant bodily resurrection – if Jesus was alive again, his tomb must be empty. Again this is a feature of the earliest Christian preaching (cf. Acts 2:29-32) and the gospel records (Mark 16:1-8; Matt 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10). But it is also a feature of the early Jewish accounts of Jesus – they claimed that the disciple stole the body, confirming that the tomb was empty (Matt 28:11-15; Justin, Dialogue 108; Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30; Toledoth Yeshu 9-10). The fact that Caesar issued a decree against moving bodies from sealed tombs and had it inscribed on a stone in Nazareth probably indicates that he too had heard the story that the tomb of Jesus was empty (see The Nazareth Inscription).
- The early Christians claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. When writing a letter to the church at Corinth in the mid-50s, Paul lists those who saw Jesus after his resurrection, including the twelve disciples and Jesus’ brother James. He even says there are over 500 other witnesses, many of whom were still alive when he wrote (1 Cor 15:5-8). These claims are also a feature of the earliest Christian preaching (Acts 2:32, 3:15, 10:39-40), the gospels (John 20:11-18; Luke 24:34; Matt 28:15-17, etc.), other New Testament texts (e.g. 1 Pet 1:3; Rom 1:4; Phil 3:10; Heb 13:20; Rev 1:18) and other first century Christian texts (Didache 10:2; 1 Clement 24:1; Barnabas 5:7).
This evidence is early, is based upon eyewitness testimony, and has a consistent core: that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again. The resurrection of Jesus is, by far, the simplest explanation of the historical evidence.
What about the alternatives? Well, a number of alternative theories have been suggested to explain the evidence but none has managed to convince the majority of scholars. Those scholars who deny the resurrection generally refuse to give a verdict on the evidence, saying this is not an issue historians can determine. For completeness, let us consider briefly just one oft-repeated alternative. It goes something like this: the disciples stole the body and then pretended that Jesus was alive again to promote their new religion. After all, the first century Jews claimed that the disciples stole the body.
However, this alternative theory just does not work for a number of reasons. Firstly, if this was a conspiracy then it was a huge conspiracy (over 500 witnesses). Secondly, the disciples had no motivation for the deception – when other Jewish cult leaders and ‘messiahs’ had met gruesome ends their followers had just disbanded. The early disciples gained neither money, status nor fame from their preaching. Thirdly, the disciples had everything to lose from such a deception. They were persecuted, imprisoned and executed by both Jewish and Roman authorities. Early witnesses, like Peter and Paul, met their deaths refusing to renounce their faith. Would you die for a lie?
If there is a God then miracles like resurrection are possible. And once you allow that the resurrection is possible, then the historical evidence points clearly to the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead.