The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus: A Short Case
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was the central message of the early church and the basis of Christian hope. But why should we believe that a man was raised from the dead 2000 years ago when we were not there to witness it, and when our uniform experience says that dead people always stay dead? While many people think the resurrection of Jesus is something you either choose to believe or choose to reject based on your personal religious tastes, the fact of the matter is that there are good, objective, historical reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.
Historians must do two things: establish the historical facts, and then find the best explanation for those facts. When it comes to the life of Jesus, the primary source material for the historian is the New Testament (NT) gospels and Paul’s writings because they include the testimony of early disciples who witnessed the events in question or knew those who did, and they provide the most detail about Jesus’ life.
You might be thinking that this is not fair because the gospels and Paul’s epistles were written by Jesus’ disciples, and therefore are biased. That may be true, but all historical documentation is biased. That does not prevent historians from sifting through the material to discover what is historical versus what is not. They don’t need to presume the NT documents are divinely inspired or inerrant. Historians of the NT (which includes both Christians and non-Christians) apply the same historiographical principles to the NT that they apply to other ancient sources to determine which parts we have good reason to believe are historical. Some of these principles include:
- The date and number of testimonies
- The closer the witness is to the historical event, and the more people who report on that same historical event the more likely it is to be historically accurate.
- Eyewitness testimony
- The testimony of those who were present for the event they are reporting on is more likely to be historically accurate than the testimony of those who were not present.
- Criterion of embarrassment
- When people are making up a story they usually portray their heroes in a positive light rather than a negative one, so the inclusion of information that could be embarrassing to the heroes is usually a good indicator that it actually happened.
- Lack of embellishment
- When people are making up stories they tend to embellish the account with superlative details, so if an account is lacking such superlatives it is more likely to be historically accurate.
- The details of a historical event must cohere with one another if it is truly historical. The presence of incongruent details is a good indication that there is some fiction involved.
Applying these principles of historiography has led the majority of NT historians to conclude that the following elements of the Jesus story are historically reliable:
#1 - Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate
Historians think Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate as the NT claims because:
- There are multiple, independent, early attestations to this fact in both the NT and from non-Christian sources.1
- There are no competing claims concerning Jesus’ death (even from non-Christians and enemies of the Christian faith).
- This was an embarrassing fact for the early church and thus would not have proclaimed it if it was not true. Jewish expectations of a messiah was that he was a conquering king who would defeat the Romans. To be killed by the Romans would be understood as de facto proof that Jesus was not the messiah.
This historical fact is significant because it means Jesus’ death was a public and official event that could be verified by Romans and Jews alike. Furthermore, the nature of His execution ensured His death, excluding the alternative explanation that Jesus never really died.
#2 - Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb
Historians believe that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea because:
- There are multiple, independent, early attestations to Jesus’ burial in a tomb2 and that it belonged to Joseph of Arimathea3 in the NT.
- Joseph of Arimathea was part of the Jewish Sanhedrin responsible for condemning Jesus to death. If the Christians were inventing the burial story, surely they would be the ones to give Jesus an honorable burial, not a stranger from the Sanhedrin.
- The burial stories lack embellishment.
- There are no competing stories concerning the fate of Jesus’ body.
This historical fact is significant because it demonstrates that the location of Jesus’ tomb was public knowledge, making the apostles’ claim of Christ’s resurrection easily falsifiable if it was based on a lie. If Jesus truly rose from the dead his tomb would be empty. To falsify the apostles’ claims, the Jewish leadership could simply point to the body in the tomb.
#3 - Jesus' tomb was found empty by a group of women followers on the Sunday morning following the crucifixion
Historians believe Jesus’ tomb was found empty for the following reasons:
- There are multiple, early, independent attestations to this fact.4
- Women’s testimony was considered generally unreliable. A legendary account would have surely made male disciples the principle discoverers of the empty tomb. To report that it was women who discovered the tomb empty would have been an embarrassing fact for the early disciples, and thus this testimony is historically reliable.
- Christianity could not have begun and flourished in Jerusalem if the tomb was not empty. The site of the tomb was known to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, so if the apostles were preaching the resurrection of Jesus despite the fact that His body was still in the tomb, the religious leaders could have quickly discredited their claims of resurrection. Disciples wouldn’t have made up a story so easily falsifiable. One can imagine how Christianity could have started in Rome since Jerusalem would be too far away for anyone to verify the claims of the apostles, but it’s not plausible for Christianity to begin in Jerusalem if Jesus’ body was still in the tomb.
If the body of Jesus is missing from the tomb, one must explain what happened to it. Furthermore, while an empty tomb does not prove Jesus rose from the dead in and of itself, it is a necessary condition for a genuine resurrection and thus is consistent with the resurrection hypothesis.
#4 – Many people had experiences of Jesus after He was crucified that they believed to be appearances of a resurrected man
While not all historians believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead, they are convinced that people had experiences of Jesus after His death that they interpreted to be appearances of the risen Jesus because:
- There are multiple, independent, early testimonies to these appearances.
- Jesus appeared multiple times, not just once; to many individuals, not just one; to groups of people, not just individuals; in various locations, not just one; under a multiplicity of circumstances, not just one.
- Jesus not only appeared to disciples, but to skeptics (James) and enemies (Paul) as well.5
Unlike Elvis sightings, these appearances were not fleeting. People not only saw Jesus, but they engaged Him in sustained conversations6 , had physical interactions with Him,7 and witnessed Him eating food.8 That’s why the disciples did not merely conclude that they were seeing Jesus’ spirit, dreaming, hallucinating, or experiencing a mere vision of Jesus. The nature of the appearances caused them to conclude that Jesus was alive in the flesh.
One has to explain how so many people would have so many experiences of Jesus alive after His death, and why those experiences would stop for everyone after just 40 days if Jesus had not, in fact, been raised from the dead. The nature of these experiences is consistent with a resurrection.
#5 – The disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead despite every predisposition not to.
There are other facts concerning the mental state of the disciples that are important to consider too. For example, we know the disciples proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah even after His crucifixion. This is an historical oddity because the Jews had no concept of a dying, yet alone rising Messiah. They saw the messiah as a conquering king. When other would-be messiahs were killed, his disciples would give up their messianic hopes or find themselves a new messiah. No one ever continued to believe that their leader was truly the messiah, yet alone claim that he rose from the dead. The disciples of Jesus did, however. What can account for this bizarre conclusion given their Jewish understanding of the messiah?
More important is the mental state of the disciples. The gospels make it clear that the disciples had already given up hope in Jesus as the Messiah after His crucifixion (Mk 16:10; Lk 24:18-21; Jn 20:24-25). They were despondent and fearful, hiding from the Jews and Romans. They were not expecting or hoping for anything further to happen related to Jesus. When the women reported seeing Jesus alive from the dead, the disciples did not believe them (Mk 16:11,14; Lk 24:10-11). They didn’t believe the testimony of the two disciples who encountered Jesus on the way to Emmaus either (Mk 16:12-13). Thomas refused to believe (Jn 20:24-28). Even when they saw Jesus in the flesh for the first time, they doubted it was Him and thought they were seeing His spirit (Lk 24:36-43). They required a lot of evidence before they concluded that Jesus had risen from the dead. Once they saw Him, however, they believed. It changed their mental state and their demeanor. Not only was their hope restored, but they were changed men. Rather than hiding from the Jewish authorities they boldly confronted them for crucifying Jesus and preached about Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 4:1-22; 5:27-32).
This mitigates the possibility that the disciples invented the resurrection story or “wished” Jesus back to life. A dying and rising messiah is too far beyond the pale of Jewish theology to be invented, and the mental disposition of the apostles following the crucifixion is not at all consistent with wishing Jesus back to life.
#6 – The conversion of James
The conversion of Jesus’ brother, James, is also considered to be historically accurate. John 7:5 tells us that Jesus’ brothers did not believe He was the messiah. Rather, they believed He was insane (Mk 3:21)! We have good reason to believe this report is historically accurate because it would be embarrassing to the early church that Jesus’ own family did not believe in Him during His earthly ministry. It’s interesting, then, that we see at least two of Jesus’ brothers, including James, coming to faith within several weeks after Jesus died (Mt 13:55; Acts 1:14). His brother James even went on to lead the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:17-18; Gal 1:19; 2:9,12).
A dead messiah is a failed messiah, so why would James refuse to believe Jesus was the messiah prior to Jesus’ crucifixion (when messianic expectations for Him were high and Jesus was performing miracles), but then embrace Him as the messiah after His crucifixion (when all messianic expectations were gone)? In the NT book that bears His name, he even calls Jesus the “Lord of glory.” What would it take for you to believe your brother was not only the messiah, but God incarnate?
#7 – The conversion of Paul
The conversion of the Apostle Paul is also historically solid. This was a man who was trained as a Pharisee and had a promising career as a religious authority (Acts 22:3; Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:4-6). He was intent on wiping out the Jesus movement. He consented to the death of Stephen and had orders from Jerusalem to arrest disciples of Jesus as far away as Damascus (Acts 7:54—8:3; 9:1-2; 22:4-5). Why did the persecutor of Jesus’ followers become a Christ follower himself? What caused a zealot against Christianity to become a zealot for Christianity? Why did a man who had everything to lose and nothing to gain become the greatest Christian missionary of all time?
The significance of Paul and James’ conversions is that they involve a skeptic and an enemy. These people were not predisposed to believe in Jesus, but to reject Him. And yet they came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead – the same conclusion that Jesus’ disciples had come to.
Assessing the Evidence
Now that we have established the historical facts that need to be explained, how do we explain them? I would argue the best explanation for these facts is the one Jesus’ original disciples offered: resurrection. There are competing non-miraculous hypotheses, to be sure, but none of them can explain all of the facts that need to be explained (lack explanatory scope), lack plausibility (explanatory power), and are often ad hoc. For example, the hallucination theory holds that those who had experiences of Jesus after His death were merely hallucinating. This explanation lacks explanatory scope because it cannot explain the empty tomb (if the disciples were hallucinating, Jesus’ body would still be in the grave, but we know the grave was empty). It is also disconfirmed by our knowledge of hallucinations. Like dreams, hallucinations are private mental events. They are individual occurrences, not group occurrences, and yet Jesus was seen by multiple people at the same time.
The theft hypothesis is another alternative theory which holds that the disciples stole the body of Jesus and then proclaimed that He had risen from the dead as predicted. This hypothesis also fails to explain all of the historical facts. It cannot account for the conversion of James and Paul, and it denies the fact that the disciples had genuine experiences of Jesus after His crucifixion in which they believed they encountered the risen Jesus. It also requires one to believe that the disciples were liars, but this is inconsistent with the fact that at least five and possibly 11 of Jesus’ apostles were killed for their message of Jesus’ resurrection. While some people are willing to die for what they believe to be true, people are not typically willing to die for what they know is a lie. Liars don’t make good martyrs, and yet they went to their graves confessing the risen Jesus.
The fact of the matter is that only the resurrection can explain all of the historical facts. Only the resurrection can explain:
- how a man could be crucified and buried, disappear from His tomb, and then appear to hundreds of different people on multiple occasions.
- why the disciples would continue to believe Jesus was the messiah contrary to all expectations and prevailing Jewish theology.
- How the apostles went from deserting Christ and hiding in fear to bold proclaimers that He was both Christ and Lord.
- the conversion of James and Paul. Both changed their minds about Jesus when they encountered Him alive after His death (Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-21; 1 Cor 9:1; 15:7-8).
When you find a group of credible people who have nothing to gain and a lot to lose claiming that they saw Jesus alive after His death, and are willing to die for this claim, you must find a valid way to explain that. While the resurrection cannot be proven with certainty, it can be proven beyond reasonable doubt as the best explanation for the historical data.9
Why it Matters
Is the resurrection of Jesus just a matter of historical interest? Is it an historical oddity that we ponder, then shrug our shoulders and move on with life? No. The resurrection of Jesus is an event of enormous significance.
First, it vindicates His identity claims, proving that He really is both Lord and Christ. If He was not who He said He was, then He was a blasphemer against God and we would not expect God to raise Him from the dead. But God did raise Him from the dead, vindicating Jesus’ claims.
Secondly, it validates His teachings regarding the spiritual realm, and proves that Christianity is the true religion. If Jesus rose from the dead, the question of which religion is true is settled.
Thirdly, the resurrection means that death has been defeated. If we will put our trust in Christ, though we die, we too will live again. Death will no longer have the final word in our lives. Jesus is the beginning of the resurrection. Those who put their trust in Him will be raised on the last day just as Christ was. Paul wrote, “Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through his Spirit who lives in you.” (Rom 8:11, NET)
Finally, our eternal destiny depends on how we respond to Christ. What do you do with a man who was raised from the dead never to see death again? Will you surrender your life to His? Will you accept the forgiveness He is offering? God has offered you a pardon in Jesus, and now you have a choice. You can either accept that pardon by trusting in Christ’s work, or refuse to accept it and pay for your own moral crimes.
If Jesus is who He claimed to be, and He really did rise from the dead, when we choose to reject Jesus we are choosing to stand before God based on our own works. In light of our sin, this is a death sentence. Only by accepting Christ’s work on Calvary on your behalf can you escape the consequences of your sins. That’s the good news of Christianity. That’s the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection.
For a more detailed argument for the resurrection of Jesus, including answers to common objects, see my article titled The Evidentiary Basis for Affirming the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- Was Bodily Resurrection a Later Christian Invention?
- What do Jesus’ post-resurrection wounds tell us about our own resurrected bodies?
- Is it rational to believe in something without verifiable, empirical evidence?
- “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed”: Is Jesus opposed to apologetics?
- Blessed Are Those Who Believe Without Seeing
- Resurrection and Inerrancy
- The Tomb of Jesus
- A Resurrected Christ: The Most Unlikely of All Conclusions
- Jewish or Roman Guard?
- The Size of the Stone Covering Jesus’ Tomb
- When did Jesus Rise from the Dead?
- Bodily Resurrection a Later Christian Invention?
- Did Matthew Record Jesus’ Resurrection Appearance to 500?
- Why Didn’t Jesus Appear to Unbelievers?
- Why Did the Apostles Wait so Long to Proclaim the Resurrection?
- Are the Biblical Witnesses of the Resurrection Disqualified Because They are Christians?
- How Was Jesus in the Earth for Three Days and Three Nights?
- Was the Crucifixion Really on Friday and the Resurrection on Sunday?
Footnotes1. Mt 26:2; 27:26,31-49; 28:5; Mk 15:21-36; 16:6; Lk 23:26-45; 24:7,20; Jn 19:17-29,41; Acts 2:23,36; 4:10; 13:29; Rom 6:6; 1 Cor 1:13,23; 2:2,8; 2 Cor 13:4; Gal 2:20; 3:1; Heb 6:6; 1 Pet 3:18; Rev 11:8; Josephus; Tacitus; Lucian; Talmud; (possibly Thallus).2. Mt 27:57-60,64,66; 28:1-2 Mk 15:43-46; 16:2-5,8; Lk 23:51-55; 24:1-3,9,12,22-24; Jn 19:38-42; 20:1-8,11-12; Acts 13:29; 1 Cor 15:4 (allusions in Rom 6:4; Col 2:12)5. The following appearances are recorded in the NT:
- Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:10-18)
- Other women (Mt 28:8-10)
- Cleopas and another disciple (Lk 24:13-32)
- Eleven disciples and others (Lk 24:33-49)
- Ten apostles and others (no Thomas) (Jn 20:19-23)
- Thomas and other apostles (Jn 20:26-30)
- Seven apostles (Jn 21:1-14)
- Disciples (Mt 28:16-20)
- Apostles at Mt of Olives before ascension (Lk 24:50-52; Acts 1:4-9)
- Peter (Luke 24:33-34; I Cor 15:5)
- Five hundred people (I Cor 15:6)
- James (I Cor 15:7)
- Paul (Acts 9; I Cor 9:1; 15:8) (Paul’s conversion, along with James’, is often treated as an evidence in itself)
- Various others (Acts 1:21-22)
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