Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?
The late skeptic Carl Sagan thought he was condemning Christianity when he said that “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” Though my skeptic friends try to use this comment against Christian claims, I think Sagan’s statement is actually in full agreement with what the Bible is telling us.
Extraordinary claims do demand extraordinary evidence. The Bible openly admits that if Jesus is dead, Christianity is also dead with him (1 Cor. 15:14).
Any human can claim to be God. The real question comes in whether or not they can back it up. To do so effectively, they would need to pull off something dynamic. Christians claim that Jesus backed up his extraordinary claim with an extraordinary resurrection.
If Christians are right; that is, if Jesus is alive, it would be a historical game changer. If we can show the historical evidence that the resurrection of Jesus happened, we can safely conclude that a resurrection is the sort of extraordinary event that could satisfy Sagan and other skeptic’s demand. In this essay, I want to highlight some of the compelling evidence that Christians are right; that Jesus is alive and that Christianity is true. The backbone for these evidences will be the defense of the resurrection taken from Paul’s first letter to a church in Corinth. Scholars believe that Paul wrote this around 55AD. I will then look at a few other pieces of evidence that should be considered and then look at some common naturalistic objections to this miraculous Christian claim.
THE CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-9 the apostle Paul builds a case for the resurrection appealing to authorities, testimonies, eyewitnesses, and his own experience as evidence for his Corinthian readership to consider. This circumstantial evidence will provide the structure for the first part of my argument. I believe that Paul’s reasons still hold valid today as no skeptic has been able to refute.
The Changed Life of Peter
Peter was one of Jesus’ closest friends. He was “one of the three” that Jesus spent most of his time with. In the gospel accounts, Peter clearly shows leadership amongst the other disciples. Jesus knows he is secure enough to make an example of him at times. Having spent so much time with Jesus, Peter had front row seats on occasions when Jesus foretold of his death and resurrection. Since Peter was there to hear all this, he should have been the one disciple who after Jesus’ burial, was the most expectant of his return (just as Jesus promised him). Peter should have been parked in front of Jesus’ tomb sitting on a lawn chair with a bucket of popcorn reassuring everyone, “Don’t worry everyone, he told me he’ll be back soon.”
The Bible tells us that this was not Peter’s experience. What happened instead is that after the arrest of Jesus, this disciple did not want to be associated with his friend. Denying him three times, once even to a little peasant girl, Peter’s cowardice was on full display. If you are a gospel writer trying to make up an impressive story, it is unlikely that you would include this embarrassing episode in Peter’s life, unless, of course it was exactly how it all happened.
Following the resurrection, a new man emerged. No longer the cowardly denier of Jesus, Peter became a bold street preacher, exposing the sin of the Jewish people and the triumph of Jesus Christ. Peter would suffer greatly for this transformation. The accounts of early church fathers, Origen, Tertullian and St. Clement, inform us that Peter’s allegiance to Jesus would cost him his life. Like his friend Jesus, Peter would die by crucifixion.
What kind of event would explain such a change in Peter? Something as drastic as a friend rising from the dead would be a sufficient explanation. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul suggests that Peter’s story is good evidence that Jesus is alive. It was not just Peter’s life that we are told to consider. Let us consider some other lives that met the resurrected Jesus as well.
The Changed Lives of the Disciples
If you went through airport security in August of 2001, took a flight to an uninhabited island for a month and came through another airport in October, you would observe that something dramatic happened while you were gone. Something caused a major policy shift in the air travel industry. We know historically that On September 11, 2001 two airplanes were highjacked and flown into the World Trade Center buildings in Manhattan, New York. Just like September 11 changed airports, the resurrection of Jesus changed the lives of his followers.
For many generations before Jesus came, the Jewish people longed for freedom over the occupying Roman forces that were oppressing the nation of Israel. They awaited the promised Messiah who was supposed to overthrow the Romans and reestablish Israel as a powerful nation. For a long time it would have looked like Jesus was the guy to do it. Established by his miracles, he healed people, fed multitudes, calmed storms, walked on water, turned water to wine, and many other events that could always draw a crowd. Jesus lived like the Messiah and talked like he was the Messiah. Hope was climaxing but was suddenly squelched when Jesus was crucified by the very Romans he was supposed to overthrow. No angels came to his rescue. He pulled off no eleventh hour heroics. He just hung there and died.
We do not know a lot about what the disciples did in the following days. We are told that they scattered when Jesus was arrested and few showed up for his crucifixion. We see a glimpse of the despair they must have all felt in the conversation of two dejected disciples as they walked along a road to a town called Emmaus. “We thought he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).
Again, if you are making the story up, you do not include the bits where the main characters show such weakness. After all, these dejected men were none other than soon-to-be-members of the early church’s core leadership team. Some days later, the gospels tell us that these same disciples were worshipping Jesus as God. Strict monotheistic Jews would have had to quickly readjust their theological paradigms after the resurrection. It is clear that they came to believe Jesus was the God of their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Not only did they believe it themselves, they went about boldly proclaiming the Messiah had come and that the Messiah was Jesus, the man from Nazareth. They too, like Peter, were persecuted for this claim; kicked out of synagogues and most of them killed for their belief in the resurrection.
The question begs to be asked: How did these bunch of cowards transform into courageous martyrs? I am convinced that they changed their behaviour because they encountered the resurrected Jesus. The truth that would forever change the trajectory of human history was standing there, talking to them, cooking with them, eating with them. No longer could they doubt him, no longer could they be ashamed of him.
The changed lives of the disciples is good evidence to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. If that group of twelve does not convince you, how about another five hundred?
The Five Hundred Eyewitnesses
The eyewitness to the atrocities that happened in Nazi death camps are the most authoritative voices against anyone who would deny that the Holocaust happened. Today, those who have survived the Holocaust are long into old age and few are still alive. If anyone wanted to know what it was like in Nazi concentration camps, the best person to talk to would be those who experienced it firsthand. Paul understood the power of eyewitness testimony. He uses it in his defence of the resurrection. After name dropping Peter and the disciples, Paul plays the numbers card to strengthen his argument: “Then he [the resurrected Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred” (1 Cor. 15:6).
Paul refers to this large, aging group and says to the Corinthians, “Many of these people are still alive - you should go and talk to them yourself! I can give you names and addresses!” In his book, Jesus and The Eye Witnesses, Richard Baukham has done excellent work showing how important eye-witness accounts were in first century literature. Eyewitness testimony was considered the most important source and carried the most weight.
As secular and liberal historians scramble to discredit Baukham’s work, I believe like many do today, that the testimony of eye-witnesses is the best way to credit or discredit a claim. Whether it be a witness in a crime, the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, or the witness of a resurrection, simply adding time (in this case two thousand years) to their testimony does not change the trustworthiness of the information. Eyewitness testimony was a priority then and it remains as such to us today.
When You Believe Your Brother Is God
I am an older brother and I know that it would take an awful lot to convince my younger brother that I am God and worthy of his worship. Granted, his childhood would have been much more satisfying for him if he had conceded to a routine of elder brother worship. At the time of writing, he has yet to bow the knee. The Bible tells us that Jesus also had brothers who were just as reluctant to worship him (Mark 6:3, Matt. 13:55). His mother, Mary, may have been a virgin when she had Jesus but it is clear that she did not stay that way. For Jesus’ first brother, James, to worship him as God and devote himself to a life of service in the church is a very big deal. It is a much bigger deal than we probably realize. Paul gives these five quick words but they really are a miracle when you consider how rare sibling worship is. “Then he appeared to James.” (1 Cor. 15:7).
In Mark 3:31, Jesus is preaching and his family is said to be waiting outside for him to finish. At various other points in the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, his brothers seem quite skeptical and apathetic about their brother’s divine claim (Mt. 13:57; Mk. 3:21, 6:4; Jn. 7:5). Perhaps, (as Jesus represented the whole family in a Middle Eastern shame culture) they were embarrassed by the kind of mixed attention their controversial brother was getting.
However, all that changed at some point because James became one of the leaders in the Jerusalem church, the hub of the emerging Christian movement. James had a position of unrivaled authority in those early days of the church. Josephus records that James’ leadership led to his martyrdom by stoning under the high priest Ananus II in 62AD.
What brought such a change in James? What caused him to go from a skeptical brother to a willing martyr? I agree with Paul that the most probable explanation is that the resurrected Jesus appeared to his brother, James.
Paul’s Personal Testimony
Jesus taught us to love our neighbours even when they do not love us. Richard Dawkins lived about a block away from my old room at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. When Dawkins was out walking his dog, I always made a point to say hello. He was always cordial to me but I know how he talks about people like myself. He does not like Christians. He thinks we are plagued with a “religious virus” and has made it part of his life’s mission to eradicate this virus from the earth. I would love him to see Jesus, not as Dawkins’ favourite problem with the world, but acknowledged as the Creator, Saviour and King of it.
Paul was a fierce persecutor of Christians. He hated them and wanted to have them killed. Paul tells the Galatians, “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Gal. 1:13).
Acts 9 records Paul’s dramatic and sudden conversion to Christianity, a conversion which he later understated to the Corinthians. “He [the resurrected Jesus] appeared also to me” (15:9) was all he says of this conversion story that would forever change history. Paul went from a man on a mission to destroy churches to a fearless man on a mission to plant them! This would cost the converted apostle everything, including his very life. For Paul, the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to him was enough to compel such a change at such a cost.
Jesus’ appearance to Peter, the disciples, the five hundred eyewitnesses, James and Paul all serve as evidence in Paul’s resurrection apologetic to the Corinthian church. There is still further evidence for us to consider before we must declare our own verdict.
Day of the Week for Worship Changed
As one who attends and works at a church, my two critiques of fellow church people are as follows: our coffee is consistently terrible and we despise change.
There was one historic change that was so drastic that something drastic must have happened to catalyze it. During the time of his ministry we see that Jesus and his disciples were comfortable meeting in Jewish synagogues on the Sabbath day (Saturday). Once Jesus was resurrected, the Christians started meeting on Sundays instead. They called it, “The Lord’s Day.”
We read this in early literature as such letters from Pliny the Elder, the Didache or the historical writings of Eusebius. Why did the early church change their worship schedule? Though Christians may not be so keen to embrace change, an incident as dramatic as a resurrection might be enough for them.
The Testimony of the Women
On resurrection Sunday, the gospels tell us that Jesus’ female disciples were the first to arrive at Jesus’ tomb. These women were the first to break the story to the eleven disciples. This is another part of the resurrection story that first century writers would not have included if they were making it up. In those days, a woman’s testimony held no authority. It could not have been considered evidence in a court case.
If you are inventing a story that you want to sell to the world (as skeptics accuse the disciples of doing), you do not begin by establishing it with the testimony of a doubting woman or any woman for that matter. God, however, knew better. Once again he shows that he not only values women and their testimony but that Jesus saw them as so valuable as to make them the first eye-witnesses of history’s most dynamic miracle!
These first reports spread to the disciples, rippling throughout Jerusalem which was right in the heart of where all the action was. This too is another convincing piece of evidence we must look at.
The Jerusalem Factor
The epicenter of the Christian movement happened in close proximity to the location of the death of Jesus. His resurrection was not reported in Galilee, Rome or Africa - but right in the heart of all the controversy. As a historian of antiquity, Paul Maier says this of the spread of the early Christian movement:
But this [Jerusalem] is the very last place it could have started if Jesus’ tomb had remained occupied, since anyone producing a dead Jesus would have driven a wooden stake through the heart of an incipient Christianity inflamed by his supposed resurrection.
All it would have taken is for one of the Roman guards to walk out with Jesus body and announce, “Ok stop all this commotion about a dead leader rising, here is the body.” That never happened. Nobody produced the body. Instead the Christian movement started and blossomed in the heart of and throughout all Jerusalem. It continued to spread to the corners of the world.
The Rapid Spread of Christianity
The book of Acts tells us that the resurrection was big news on the lips of the early church. What do you make of the spread of Christianity from a handful of eyewitnesses to the estimated 31.7 million around the Roman Empire in the next three hundred years?
Cambridge scholar, C.F. Moule, tells us there is one very compelling argument to be made by the global explosion of Christianity, “The birth and spread of Christianity remains an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the church itself.”
Resurrection was the explanation of the early church for why people should believe in Jesus.
The church exists because the first Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead. They were so convinced that they spread the news all over the known world. As they were spreading this news, other alternative stories were also being told by skeptics to explain what happened to Jesus’ body. Those alternative stories remain with us today.
THE ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS
Skeptics have come up with various other alternatives for what could have happened to the body of Jesus. Let’s look at the three strongest.
Could Jesus’ Body Have Been Stolen By His Disciples?
Even the enemies of Jesus knew the tomb was empty. Historian Ron Sider concludes, “If the Christians and their Jewish opponents bot
h agreed that the tomb was empty, we have little choice but to accept the empty tomb as an historical fact.”
The story that the disciples stole the body from the tomb is the oldest alternative explanation to the resurrection. Each with their own various reasons, contemporary critical scholars unanimously reject this hypothesis. One has to think about a motive for the disciples stealing Jesus’ body. People could die for causes that they believe to be true but would they die for lies that they have invented? Philosopher Peter Kreeft asks:
Why would the apostles lie?…If they lied, what was their motive, what did they get out of it? What they got out of it was misunderstanding, rejection, persecution, torture, and martyrdom. Hardly a list of perks.
Consider the disciples reaction after Jesus is crucified. Their preaching of the resurrection was not motivated by fame, power, or the desire to be rich. They received none of these things for their efforts. Their response was a testimony to proclaim what they had witnessed in Jerusalem and they were willing to give their lives for it.
These men were conservative, orthodox Jewish fishermen. Based on the credibility of the martyred disciples, the conversion of genuine skeptics like Paul and James, and the changed lives of all the eye-witnesses, scholars have not taken the stolen body view seriously for two hundred years now.
Maybe Jesus Never Really Died
A second alternative explanation is that Jesus merely fainted on the cross and then later revived himself. His later appearance to his disciples was the reason why they thought he was resurrected. This idea became popular at the beginning of the 19th century when the liberal, naturalistic era grew in influence. This hypothesis holds little power today.
The Romans were experts at execution. Roman soldiers showed up to work and and killed people by crucifixion. When Roman soldiers were ordered to kill someone, they killed them. It was their job after all.
Perhaps Jesus only appeared to be dead and then recovered enough to regain consciousness after a few days. This would be quite a feat for him to move the rock that blocked his tomb and then sneak by the guards patrolling his tomb. If Jesus was to roll the stone away, the guards would have caught him and killed him; finishing him off for good. They would not have reported back to their boss that the disciples stole him (as we have recorded in Matt. 28:13).
It is an unlikely idea that, in his weak and bloody state, Jesus limped to his disciples’ house and there convinced a crowd of depressed, fearful doubters that a “resurrection miracle” had occurred. To have such an event explain the transformation of the disciples into fearless martyrs is a big ask. These points are sufficient grounds to dismiss the idea that Jesus never really died.
Perhaps the Disciples Hallucinated
The last most prominent alternative explanation to the Christian claim that Jesus was resurrected is known as the hallucination theory. This theory considers the possibility that Jesus’ disciples merely thought they had seen Jesus alive when actually, he was still very dead. Though we know that individuals can be prone to hallucinations, it is highly improbable that multiple people hallucinate over the same event.
The five hundred eyewitnesses that Paul references in 1 Corinthians 15:4 makes the impossibility of such a united mistake even stronger. Lastly, the hallucination theory does not take into account the claim that the tomb was empty and Jesus’ opponents were unable to produce his body at any time (in history).
History tells us that Jesus died, that he was buried in a rich man’s tomb and that three days later his disciples reported the tomb empty. If the disciples did not steal the body nor hallucinate into thinking they saw him, what happened to the body of Jesus?
With those three eliminated as alternative explanations one is left to either concoct other explanations or accept the conclusions for which, I believe, the evidence demands.
Any alternative explanation would need to explain why Peter and the rest of the disciples transformed from cowards to radical witnesses of a bodily resurrection. It would have to explain the transformation of Paul of Damascus and why Jesus’ brother worshipped him as God.
Furthermore, an alternative explanation to the resurrection would have to give a reason for the credible testimony of the women disciples, the day of worship being changed to Sunday, the rapid spread of Christianity in the very center of Jerusalem and the fact that Jesus’ enemies were never able to produce his body.
The resurrection is the most supported explanation for what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ resurrection gives us certainty that God exists, that Jesus backed up his claims of divinity with a resurrection and that this resurrection gives hope of eternal life to all who believe in him (John 3:16).