Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Could this really be true? If it is not true, then Christians are of all men most to be pitied. If it is true that Christ rose from the dead, then Christ is the greatest prize. “The bodily resurrection of Christ is the crowning proof that Jesus was who he claimed to be, God manifested in human flesh (see Christ, Deity of). Indeed, the resurrection of Christ in flesh is of such importance to the Christian faith that the New Testament insists that no one can be saved without it (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 15:1–7).”[i]
While we have no video evidence of the resurrection of Christ, there are great reasons for us to believe in the Gospel message. Just look at the claims:
- Luke 24:3, “When they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.”
- Luke 24:5-6, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
- 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, “Now I would remind you brothers, of the gospel which I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you.”
These verses record the greatest and only hope of mankind. Can we prove they are true?
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to the New Testament and foundational for the theology of the Church. These events have been acknowledged as paramount from the early church to the present. For example, Paul argues that if Jesus did not bodily rise from the dead as the firstfruit of believers, biblical faith is fallacious and ineffective, preaching is useless, apostolic witnesses were false, sin remains unforgiven, and believers have died without hope (1 Cor 15:12–19). He also asserts that Christians are misguided without this distinctive doctrine (1 Cor 15:32).[ii]
Peter Kreeft notes that there are five possible theories which account for the resurrection stories:
1 Jesus died Jesus rose Christianity
2 Jesus died Jesus didn’t rise—apostles deceived Hallucination
3 Jesus died Jesus didn’t rise—apostles myth-makers Myth
4 Jesus died Jesus didn’t rise—apostles deceivers Conspiracy
5 Jesus didn’t die Swoon
Theories 2 and 4 constitute a dilemma: if Jesus didn’t rise, then the apostles, who taught that he did, were either deceived (if they thought he did) or deceivers (if they knew he didn’t). The Modernists could not escape this dilemma until they came up with a middle category, myth. It is the most popular alternative today.[iii]
Thankfully, we have great reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. “The fact of Christ’s resurrection is exceedingly well attested. It was needful that it should be beyond dispute, since it lies at the very basis of our holy faith; it is consoling to think that it is so; for thus our foundation standeth most secure. Our Lord was careful to show himself after his resurrection to those who, having known him before his decease would be able to answer for the identity of his person.”[iv]
Agreement between Friends and Enemies
When two groups who are in direct opposition agree on certain areas of an event, those things are very likely factual. When we examine the Gospel records we can find some things upon which the disciples of Christ and the enemies of Christ agree. This agreement helps us to see the factual nature of these events. All parties agree upon the following:
- Jesus was buried in Joseph’s new tomb.
- A huge stone was rolled up to seal the tomb.
- A Roman guard was given the responsibility of guarding the tomb—Matthew 27:62-66.
- The body was missing three days later—Luke 24:3.
- Individuals believed they had seen the risen Lord—1 Corinthians 15:1-24.
These events are confirmed by both the friends and enemies of Christ. They are essential elements of the Gospel.
The Disciples’ Faith Demanded Evidence
The disciples themselves found it difficult to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
- Peter rebuked Christ for teaching he would be crucified and rise again—Matthew 16:20-23.
- Even when the good news was first announced to them, they did not believe—Mark 16:14; Luke 24:20-25.
- The women expected to find the body and were troubled about moving the stone away in order to get inside the tomb—Mark 16:3.
- The disciples had lost hope saying, “We trusted that it had been he who should have redeemed Israel”—Luke 24:21.
- Thomas would not believe until after he had seen the evidence—John 20:24-25.
When the evidence is examined, it leads to faith in Christ. Even among the skeptics examination often leads to faith.
Charles Spurgeon gave the following account: So clear is the evidence of Christ’s resurrection, that when Gilbert West—a celebrated infidel—selected this subject as the point of attack, sitting down to weigh the evidence and to digest the whole matter, although filled with prejudice, he was so startled with the abundant witness to the truth of this fact, that he expressed himself a convert, and has left as a heritage for coming generations a most valuable treatise, entitled “Observations on the Resurrection of Christ.”[v] John Singleton Copley, one of the great legal minds in British history and three times High Chancellor of England, wrote, “I know pretty well what evidence is, and I tell you, such evidence as that for the resurrection has never broken down yet.”[vi]
Witnesses of the Resurrection
Being buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is evidence not only to his death but also to the resurrection of Jesus. Joseph was a leading member of the Sanhedrin Council. The place of burial was now well known among the Jews and well-guarded by the Roman guards. If anything other than the resurrection noted in the Bible occurred, someone would have surely reported it. However, there is no true alternative to the Gospel message.
One of the greatest proofs of the narrative is that Jesus’ first appearance is to women. “In the first-century Jewish culture, a writer inventing a resurrection account would never have taken this approach. A woman’s testimony was not even accepted in court. Anyone faking the record would have Jesus appear first to one or more of his twelve disciples, probably a prominent one such as Peter.”[vii] Matthew 28 records how the women saw the Lord, touched his physical body, spoke with him, and saw the empty tomb.
Peter, of course saw the empty tomb and the grave clothes just before this appearance (John 20:6–7). So Peter experienced at least three evidences of the physical resurrection; he saw and heard Jesus, and he observed the empty tomb and grave clothes. These are definite pieces of evidence that the body that rose is the same, visible, tangible, material body he had before the resurrection.[viii]
In John 20, Thomas is given the opportunity to examine the physical body of Christ. Thomas is usually seen as skeptical, but he gives us further verification. When given the opportunity to see the body, Thomas exclaimed “My Lord, and my God” (John 20:28).
The appearance of Jesus to to James (the Lord’s brother) mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 is highly significant. Surely Jesus would be recognized by his own brother. Luke does report that James had become a leading member of the apostolic group in Acts 15:13-2. Since Jesus’ brothers had rejected Jesus before his death (John 7:5), Paul’s reference to Christ appearing to James is certainly based on fact and is incredible evidence for the resurrection.
There were other witnesses to the resurrection (such as on the road to Emmaus, and those recorded in 1 Corinthians 15). The eye witness testimonies involve individuals who doubted the resurrection of Jesus seeing the Lord, speaking with him, touching him, eating with him, and believing in him. They had no reason to falsify their testimony. They had every reason to deny the truth. However, they stood firm in their testimony.
Converting Power of the Resurrection
In addition to all the direct evidence for the bodily resurrection of Christ, there are lines of corroboration. These include the immediate transformation of the men who became the apostles, the reaction of those who rejected Christ, the existence of the early church, and the immediate, amazingly rapid spread of Christianity.
After Jesus’ death his apostles were scared, scattered, and skeptical. Only one, John, was at the crucifixion (John 19:26–27). The rest fled (Matt. 27:58). They also were skeptical. Mary, the first one to whom Jesus appeared, doubted, thinking she had seen a gardener (John 20:15). The disciples doubted the reports of the women (Luke 24:11). Some doubted until they saw Christ for themselves (John 20:25). One would not even believe when all the other apostles told them Christ had appeared to them. Two disciples on the road to Emmaus even doubted as they talked with Jesus, thinking he was a stranger (Luke 24:18).
A few weeks these very same men and women who had huddled in secret (John 20:19) were fearlessly and openly proclaiming the resurrection of Christ—even before the Sanhedrin that was responsible for Christ’s death (Acts 4–5). The only thing that can account for this immediate and miraculous change is that they were absolutely convinced they had encountered the bodily resurrected Christ.[ix]
The Disciples’ Unwavering Faith
- Stephen would not recant his faith, but demanded his audience repent—Acts 7.
- The disciples continued preaching in persecution—Acts 8:1-4; 26:9-12; 1 Timothy 1:13, 15.
- Saul never went back to comfort after being confronted with the resurrected Lord—2 Corinthians 11:21-28.
- Early Christians rejoiced when persecuted—Acts 5:41-42; Acts 16:25-34.
The Disciple’s Preaching
Of all the wonderful things Jesus taught the disciples about love (Matt. 22:36–37), non-retaliation (Matthew 5), and the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 13), the dominant theme of apostolic preaching was none of these themes. Above all else, they proclaimed the resurrection of Christ. It was the subject of Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:22–40) and his next sermon at the temple (Acts 3:14, 26). It was the content of his message before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:10). Indeed, everywhere and “with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33; cf. 4:2). Being a witness to the resurrection was a condition for being an apostle (Acts 1:22; cf. 1 Cor. 9:1). The best explanation of why this theme was their immediate preoccupation within weeks of his death was that they had, as the Gospels tell us, repeatedly encountered him alive in the days after his crucifixion.[x]
The Power of the Resurrection
The resurrection of Christ is the single most powerful event in all of human history. No other moment in time has so powerfully shaped the remainder of human history. No other event has become the foundation of so much good in society and in individuals.
- The power of the resurrection was great enough to convert 3000 in just a few days—Acts 2:41.
- The power of the resurrection was so great that within a little over 30 years the gospel had been preached to “every creature under heaven” (Colossians 1:23; Roman 10:18-21).
- The power of the resurrection remains great for us. Let us meditate on this great reality recorded in the Gospels and serve God faithfully until he shall come again and raise us up by the same power by which he was raised—Philippians 3:20-21.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26) “The historical evidence is massive enough to convince the open-minded inquirer. By analogy with any other historical event, the resurrection has eminently credible evidence behind it. To disbelieve it, you must deliberately make an exception to the rules you use everywhere else in history. Now why would someone want to do that?”[xi]
[i] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Baker Reference Library; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 651.
[ii] J. Lanier Burns, “Resurrection,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015).
[iv] C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons (vol. 8; London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1862), 217.
[v] C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons (vol. 8; London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1862), 218.
[vi] Michael P. Green, 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 304.
[vii] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Baker Reference Library; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 651.
[viii] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Baker Reference Library; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 652.
[ix] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Baker Reference Library; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 655–656.
[x] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Baker Reference Library; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 656.