Christianity is unique among all world religions because it bases its existence and legitimacy on a leader who was killed and then came back to life from the dead. This is not a peripheral Christian story that can be discarded if one disagrees with it. It is at the core of the Christian faith. As the Apostle Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor. 15:17). If Jesus Christ did not actually come back to life from the dead then there is no Christianity. And this bold claim carries a lot of weight when you understand that this is a historically verifiable event. Paul is not saying that he has chosen to believe in Jesus’s resurrection for personal reasons and that it does not really matter if Jesus rose bodily from the dead or not; or if there is supporting evidence for His resurrection or not. He is saying that this is an actual, historical event that can be corroborated. These claims are worthy of investigation.
Virtually no scholar disagrees that the man Jesus of Nazareth was killed by the Romans by crucifixion around AD 30. This statement is uncontroversial. The controversy surrounds the claims to His resurrection. Paul’s description of the testimony concerning Jesus’s resurrection is in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
The language Paul uses of “delivered” and “received” convinces scholars that he is quoting from an old tradition that was given to Paul shortly after he became a Christian, most likely within 3-5 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Paul possibly received this tradition from Peter and James, two of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’s resurrection, when he visited them in Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18). So, this is an eyewitness testimony to the fact that Jesus did die, but that He came back to life.
On top of that, Paul says that Jesus appeared alive after death to “more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive.” This is not an insignificant detail because if these many eyewitnesses were still alive then anyone could go ask them if these events were true. The claim to Jesus’s resurrection was not a later invention by a small group of followers but was common knowledge right after it happened by hundreds of people who all saw him alive after He had died. Paul was encouraging any doubters of the resurrection to go interview these eyewitnesses.
The Empty Tomb
There are also many other lines of evidence that support the reality of the resurrection. One is that Jesus’s body was placed in a known tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea. All four gospels affirm that Joseph, a respected member of the Jewish council and a secret disciple of Jesus, asked Pilate to bury Jesus (Matt. 27:57; Mark 15:43; Lk. 23:50-56; Jn. 19:38). Pilate granted Joseph this request and Jesus was buried in Joseph’s tomb. It is unlikely that Christians concocted this story after the fact because there was animosity toward the Jews on the part of some Christians because they demanded Jesus’s death (1 Thess. 2:15). Why would Christians create a story where a high ranking Jewish official chose to honor Jesus by giving Him a proper burial unless it were true? Also, the council Joseph was on, the Sanhedrin, was well known and anyone could have discredited the disciples' stories if what they said was not true. Not only does this account go back to the oldest sources we have regarding Jesus’s burial, there is no alternative story suggested. All of the historical accounts we have of Jesus's burial say that He was buried in the tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea.
This is significant because if Jesus’s body lay in a known tomb then anyone in Jerusalem could have presented His dead body once His disciples started claiming He was alive again. The Jews and the Romans would have reason to discredit these resurrection claims and stop the growth of Christianity. If Jesus was still dead then they could have gone to the tomb where He lay and make Jesus’s followers look foolish—"You claim your leader has risen from the dead, but here is his body right here.” But they could not do this because the tomb was empty. The earliest sources all declare the tomb to be empty and Matthew 28:11-15 reports that the Jews created a story that Jesus’s disciples stole His body. This shows that the Jews did not deny that the tomb was indeed empty but had to figure out a way to respond to this reality.
Also, the empty tomb was first discovered by Jesus’s female followers. The testimony of women at this time was believed to be unreliable and was inadmissible in court. While it is a sad fact of history, it would have been somewhat embarrassing for Jesus's disciples to claim that women were the first ones to make the monumental discovery of the empty tomb. Listeners would be inclined to roll their eyes because women’s testimony was not trusted. Because of these facts it is unlikely that these details were made up because it would only undermine the credibility of their story. It would have been better to claim that the male disciples discovered the empty tomb if it were a later legend to support the claim of the resurrection. But the disciples stuck to their story that women were the first to find the tomb empty and preserved this in the gospels because it actually happened. Furthermore, the account of the empty tomb is simple and not embellished, which would likely be a characteristic if this were a legend that was created later. This is evident by reading the simple accounts in the gospels of the resurrection and the highly embellished accounts in the second century apocryphal gospels.
The Transformation of Paul and James
As already mentioned, there are many accounts of Jesus appearing alive to both individuals and groups of people after His death. These people had real experiences that changed them. Two deserve special note. The Apostle Paul was a zealous Pharisee who was intentionally seeking out Christians to imprison and kill them. For him to go from hating Christians enough to murder them to being one of the most instrumental figures in the early church, preaching the gospel everywhere and planting churches, would require extreme circumstances. These circumstances occurred as Paul encountered the risen Christ in Acts 9.
James was the half brother of Jesus and did not believe Jesus was the Messiah during His ministry. He and his family thought Jesus was “out of his mind" (Mk. 3:21), and John simply describes that “not even his brothers believed in him” (Jn. 7:5). What could have caused James to finally believe that his own brother was fully God and fully man and rose from the dead? The reality of Jesus's resurrection and his post-mortem appearance to James could (1 Cor. 15:7). James was completely transformed by the reality of the resurrection. He went from disbelieving Jesus to being considered an apostle, and was even a high-ranking leader in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15).
The fact that the disciples proclaimed that Jesus was the crucified and risen Messiah is highly significant because they would have no categories for these things. Jews at this time did not believe in a suffering or dying Messiah. They were looking for a powerful Messiah who would overthrow the Roman government and rule as Messianic king right then. They could not conceive of a Messiah who would die a criminal's death on a cross, which would reveal to Jews that this person was under God's curse (Deut. 21:23). And the disciples would not expect Jesus to rise from the dead because Jews were expecting the resurrection of all God's people at the end of time, not the resurrection of a single individual in the middle of history. This idea would have been inconceivable. These facts suggest that the disciples would not have invented the story of a crucified and resurrected Messiah because they had no category to even consider something so incredible. But they proclaimed this reality everywhere because they saw Jesus alive after His death.
Transformation of the Disciples and the Growth of the Church
This accounts for how a small group of defeated Jews could go from mourning the loss of their rabbi to boldly proclaiming to everyone that “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32) and “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:36) just 50 days after His resurrection. Not only did they devote the rest of their lives to preaching the reality of Jesus’s resurrection and the good news of the gospel to the known world, they all endured persecution and died martyr's deaths for their faith. If they had made up the story of Jesus’s resurrection what can account for this radical shift in the disciples and their willingness to be killed to proclaim the resurrection? How could the early church grow so rapidly (Acts 2:41) and spread so quickly across the world? Every good student of history will take seriously the Christian claim to the resurrection because the birth and rapid growth of the Christian church must be historically accounted for somehow. The resurrection has always been the only explanation offered by Christians, and anyone who disagrees with the resurrection to account for these facts will have to offer a plausible alternative.
There are many objections and alternatives offered to the claim that Christ rose from the dead. The claim that Jesus’s body was stolen or the disciples went to the wrong tomb is unconvincing. They knew where the tomb was and would not have undergone such a radical life transformation if His body were merely stolen and they did not see Him alive. The suggestion that Jesus did not die on the cross but merely “swooned” and then regained consciousness in the tomb, unwrapped Himself from his grave clothes, and rolled the great stone away Himself after experiencing intense physical trauma and blood loss, and being left alone without food and water in the tomb for three days is almost as great a miracle as the resurrection itself. The suggestion that more than 500 people had a mass hallucination of a risen Jesus at the same time is phenomenally hard to defend. The resurrection was not a legend that developed later by Christians but is rooted in historical sources that were written very soon after the events and go all the way back to eyewitness testimony. And while many reject the idea that miracles such as the resurrection can occur at all, if there is a God who exists and created and sustains the entire universe, raising one man from the dead is child’s play. The possibility of miracles can be defended to a greater degree historically and philosophically, of course, but suffice it to say that if God exists, He can perform miracles.
God Raised Jesus From the Dead
And we are seeing more and more throughout these blogs the reality that God exists, brought the entire universe into existence out of nothing, fine-tuned it for life, and sustains the universe in its existence at each and every moment. We can trust that the Bible is God’s word and that it is communicating accurate history to us concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus. Because of all these things we can confidently declare the truth of the statements in the Apostle’s Creed concerning Jesus’s death and resurrection:
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
-By Kevin Tapscott