The Evidence Behind The Resurrection

If Jesus really did die on the Cross and then rise again, it is the biggest event in human history. It is profound, mind-blowing, and incomprehensible. Yet if it happened, we cannot afford to brush it aside or ignore it. Because eternity is around the corner and Jesus gives us the opportunity of everlasting life with Him. And it is only through the resurrection that this is possible - if God can raise Jesus from the dead, He will surely do the same for us. This is why the death and resurrection of Jesus is so vitally relevant and important to everyone.

Inference to the best explanation is a term used to describe how the historicity of an event is determined. William Lane Craig describes this as an approach where we "begin with the evidence available to us and then infer what would, if true, provide the best explanation of that evidence." Essentially, we should accept an event as truth if there is sufficient evidence surrounding it.

The theory of the resurrection is the most obvious explanation of the Easter events. When we look at Scripture as a historical document (which it is), we begin to realize that there is so much evidence for Jesus rising again. I fully believe that the Bible is God breathed and trustworthy, however both historians and scholars, whether they believe the Bible is divinely inspired, admit to the following three truths that are presented in the New Testament:

•The tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered empty by a group of women on the Sunday following the crucifixion.

•Jesus' disciples had real experiences with one whom they believed was the risen Christ.

•As a result of the preaching of these disciples, which had the resurrection at its center, the Christian church was established and grew.

Not only do the majority of scholars accept these three truths, but it’s the fact that there are three truths that make the case for the resurrection so strong. Even if someone was a skeptic, they would have to explain not one but three truths. This is what makes the resurrection theory so strong, because all of the three truths mentioned above support it.

The Empty Tomb

So, what evidence is there that the tomb really was empty?

•The people who claimed to see the resurrected Jesus say that they saw Him in the same city that He had been buried in. He had not gone to some far off place - He was in the same city where He was laid to rest. It would have been impossible for the disciples to convince everyone that they had seen the resurrected Jesus, whilst in the same city as only a couple of days ago, if Jesus was still in the tomb.

As Paul Althaus writes, the resurrection proclamation "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."

•Matthew 28:11-15 says:

'While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, 'You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.’

(NIV)

Even the Jewish people knew that the tomb was empty, and it is apparent that they wanted to cover this fact up because they wanted to kill Christianity. Additionally, the Toledoth Jesu (a compilation of early Jewish writings) also writes about the tomb being empty and attempts to explain why.

We also have a second century debate between a Christian and a Jew, where a reference is made to the fact that the Jews claim the body was stolen. Therefore, it is pretty certain that even the Jews admitted to the tomb being empty. This is of extreme importance because the Jewish leaders opposed Christianity - they were hostile towards the Christians, and so to admit something that didn’t have sufficient evidence, when that something was not in their favor, is ridiculous. Dr. Paul Maier calls this "positive evidence from a hostile source. In essence, if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favor, the fact is genuine."

•The empty tomb is supported by the fact that Jesus was buried there in the first place - if we weren’t sure that He was buried there, it could be argued that He was never there in the first place. Joseph of Arimethea is the one who buried Christ, and he was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a sort of Jewish ‘Supreme Court.’ Because the people on this court were so well known, anything written about them that were fictitious would have been seen through and identified as false. So this court couldn’t have circulated a story about Joseph of Arimethea burying Jesus unless it was absolutely true. If the burial was legendary, there would be conflicting ‘truths’ - which we don’t have. Furthermore, everyone would have known where Jesus was buried. So, if the Christians had claimed that it was empty and it wasn't, they would have been exposed as frauds, or insane. Despite the Jewish leaders wanting to expose the apostles as liars, they simply had no basis to do so, because the tomb truly was empty.

•Jesus never had a shrine set up around His bones. It was custom to make a shrine around the deceased; there were at least 50 such cites in Jesus' day. Since there was no such shrine for Jesus, it suggests that his bones weren't there.

•The account of Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospel of Mark has no legendary aspects to it. As John Piper writes:

"This is very apparent when we compare it with the gospel of Peter, a forgery from about 125. This legend has all of the Jewish leaders, Roman guards, and many people from the countryside gathered to watch the resurrection. Then three men come out of the tomb, with their heads reaching up to the clouds. Then a talking cross comes out of the tomb! This is what legend looks like, and we see none of that in Mark's account of the empty tomb--or anywhere else in the gospels for that matter!"

• Women discovered the empty tomb. Women were despised in the days of Jesus, and if this story were a mere legend, then it would have surely been men who first discovered the empty tomb.

• The Jews and Romans had no motive to steal the body - they wanted to suppress Christianity, so why would they have stolen the body to create a ‘resurrection hype’? The disciples would have had no motive, either. Because of their preaching on the resurrection, they were beaten, killed, and persecuted. Why would they go through all of this, and more, for a deliberate lie?

• In scripture, the resurrection story is written fairly simply. If it were a legend, there would be more ‘pomp and ceremony’ - or to put it another way, it would be written in a way other than as pure historical fact.

The Resurrection Appearances

The second key truth is that we have eyewitness accounts of the disciples seeing the person who they believed was the risen Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 in the NIV translation says:

"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, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of who are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born."

This creed was received by Paul, from Peter and James, about 3-5 years after the crucifixion. This is therefore a statement of their own testimonies, because they gave it to Paul themselves. As the Jewish Scholar Pinchahs Lapide has said, this creed "may be considered the statement of eyewitnesses."

Some may argue that because it was believers who claimed to see Jesus, it makes their eyewitness account biased. This is not true. Imagine you were a witness during a murder trial. You saw the murder happen, and you stand up to give your testimony. The judge responds by saying, “I’m sorry, but since you believe that the murder happened, your view is biased and therefore does not count.” It simply doesn’t work. Just because someone believes something happened, or that something would happen, and then sees it with his or her own eyes, does not mean that their view is biased.

However, just because the disciples claimed to see the risen Jesus doesn’t automatically mean they did. There are three possibilities:

•They were lying

•They hallucinated

•They really saw the risen Christ

Would the disciples really have lied? Ten of them were killed as martyrs for their claims about the resurrection. Now, if they were lying, they would have known that the resurrection didn’t happen. It’s one thing for someone to die because they were genuinely mistaken, and really did think the resurrection happened even if it didn’t, but it’s a totally different matter when someone is willing to give up their life for something that they know isn’t true. And, more than that, for 10 people to give up their lives for something that they know not to be true. Furthermore, it is incredibly unlikely that if it were all a lie that the disciples were able to cover up the whole fraud.

So, almost all scholars today understand the absurdity of the claim that the disciples were lying about the resurrection, and they at least believed they saw Jesus even if they didn’t. We know that just because someone believes something, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. So were the disciples hallucinating?

The appearances of the resurrected Christ simply do not line up with the nature of hallucinations. Why?

1) The disciples record eating and drinking with Jesus, as well as touching him. This cannot be done with hallucinations.

2) Hallucinations are uniquely individual to each person so, it is incredibly unlikely that every one of the people who claimed to see the risen Jesus had the exact same hallucination. Two people can’t have the exact same dream, so it is impossible to say that several people had the exact same hallucination.

3) Paul, the persecutor of Christians, converted to Christianity 3 years after the resurrection. He is probably one of the last people we would expect to want to see the risen Christ so much that his mind invented an appearance. Paul hated Christians and was determined to wipe them out, yet even he converted to Christianity.

4) The hallucination theory, perhaps above everything else, cannot explain the evidence for the empty tomb.

5) Psychologists will tell you that hallucinations cannot contain anything new. Since 1st century Judaism had no concept of a single individual rising from the dead in the middle of history, and the disciples who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus would have been Jews, they couldn’t have been hallucinating this since it is a totally new concept, and hallucinations can’t contain an idea that isn’t already in your mind. They could have hallucinated that Jesus had been transported directly to heaven, like Elijah had been in the Old Testament, but a resurrection could not have been hallucinated.

So, we infer that the disciples weren’t lying or hallucinating. And that leaves us with only one possible explanation left: the disciples really had seen the risen Jesus. That means that if we reject the resurrection, we now have the empty tomb and the appearances to explain.

The Origin of the Christian Faith

The existence of the Church is strong proof for the resurrection. Even the most skeptical New Testament scholars understand that the disciples at least believed Jesus rose from the dead. But where did this belief come from? There are three options:

•Christian influences

•Pagan influences

•Jewish influences

As for the argument that Christian influences were the origin of the Christian faith, William Lane Craig writes, "Since the belief in the resurrection was itself the foundation for Christianity, it cannot be explained as the later product of Christianity." And we have already discovered that the disciples didn’t lie about the resurrection, nor were they hallucinating. So, the resurrection is not a by-product of Christianity, but rather the foundations of it, and these foundations are sure and true.

What about pagan influences? There were many myths of dying and rising savior gods at the time of Christianity, so is it possible that the disciples copied these myths into their own teaching on the resurrection of Jesus? There are four reasons why serious scholars have rejected the argument that Christianity was built on pagan influences:

1) These mystery religions had no major influence in Palestine in the 1st century.

2) The majority of the sources that include parallels between Paganism and Christianity originated after Christianity was established.

3) Most of the similarities aren’t actually that similar. For example, one critic tried to argue that a ceremony of killing a bull and letting the blood drip all over the participants was parallel to Holy Communion, and we know that Holy Communion does not involve the dripping of real blood from an animal onto the fellowship.

4) The early disciples were Jews (because their family were Jewish, and Judaism is passed down through blood) - Jews were adamant that the Pagan beliefs were disgusting in God’s eyes, and so to borrow from the Pagan religion to create a new religion would be abominable.

Jewish influences cannot explain the belief in the resurrection, either. As mentioned earlier, 1st century Judaism had no conception of a single individual rising from the dead in the middle of history. Jews believed that everyone would rise together at the end of time. So the concept of Jesus rising from the dead was completely foreign to them. Therefore, Judaism of that day could have never produced the resurrection hypothesis.

So if we assume that the resurrection didn’t happen, there isn’t an explanation for the origin of the Christian faith.

Three Independent Facts

It is safe to say that the most plausible conclusion for the resurrection events is that Jesus really did rise from the dead. This is because the resurrection of Jesus explains all three of the facts that we are faced with (the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the establishment of the Christian Church). If we were to explain these facts another way, all three would have to be accounted for. If we were to combine three of the theories that we know are implausible, it would only make matters worse. As Gary Habermas has said:

"Combining three improbable theories will not produce a probable explanation. It will actually increase the degree of improbability. Its like putting leaking buckets inside each other, hoping each one will help stop up the leaks in the others. All you will get is a watery mess."

 

Legend? 

There are numerous reasons why the resurrection is not a legend that has evolved over time:

•The testimony of the people who saw the risen Christ was first hand experiences.

•The myth theory cannot explain the empty tomb.

•The conversion of Paul, a brutal Christian-killer, would not have happened if the resurrection were a myth, for he wouldn’t have been convinced. Also, his conversion happened too early for a myth to have developed.

•The account of the empty tomb in the gospel of Mark was very early (within seven years of the events), which is not a long enough amount of time for a legend to have developed.

•The story of the empty tomb does not have the traits of a legend - no flowery language, no exaggeration, just simple facts.

•The resurrection messages were the basis of the early church, so it couldn’t have been the product of the later church.

•There is extremely good evidence that the gospels and Acts were written very early. For example, the book of Acts never records the death of Paul, which occurred in about 64, or the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in 70. Therefore, they were written too early for a legend to have developed.

On the basis of the evidence we have seen, it appears to me that the resurrection is the best explanation. It explains the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the existence of the Christian church. No other competing theory can explain all three of these facts. In fact, none of these competing theories can even give a satisfying explanation for even one of these facts. So it seems like the rational person will accept that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

So why is the resurrection of Jesus Christ important?

It means that we can have hope. Not just wishful thinking, but an unshakeable, imperishable hope.

When we accept that we were created in God’s image (that is, God created us out of love and to be loved by Him), but we decide to go our own way and do life without Him, we realize that we are sinners. We are still created in love, but our existence has been fractured by our own selfish desires, and by wanting to be our own god.

But it doesn’t end there. God sent Jesus to die for our sins. In an incomprehensible transaction, Jesus took on the sin of the world, allowing it to experience the agony of being separated from the God of the entire Universe, so that we wouldn’t have to experience that pain ourselves. It cost God everything.

And yet, because Jesus was fully man and fully God, He rose again. He rose from the grave to show us what He now offers us - eternal security with our Heavenly Father. We won’t just go to some place where our souls will float about in an airy open space. If we trust in Jesus to save us and wipe away our sin, we will one day rise from the dead just as He did, with glorified souls and bodies, forever praising the Lover of our souls.

 

There is no other religion or belief system that offers this. Jesus is the only One who came to sort out our mess, getting down in the dirt that we created, so that He could offer eternal life through Him. We cannot afford to put the resurrection to one side. It is the biggest event in history, and it leaves the door open for man to come back into relationship with God once again.

"I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through me"

(John 14:6)

 

 

 

Alice is 18 and from England. She gave her life to Jesus about 5 years ago, and was baptized in July 2015. She feels that she is called to creative evangelism after receiving many prophecies from various people. She's a keen musician, photographer, writer, and speaker, and she hopes to involve all of these passions when sharing the love of Jesus to the world. She looks forward to moving to a city to attend university, engrossing herself in youth culture and wider communities.