If Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true. If he did not, Christianity is nonsense. Jesus’ deity and role as Savior as well as the gospel message depend upon his resurrection. This important issue demands we give our best and most serious attention to the evidence. Convincing evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion.
Exhibit A: Witnesses
Four eyewitnesses of the risen Christ—Matthew, John, Peter, and Paul—record written testimony within 20 to 60 years after the event. Luke and Mark affirm the resurrection in their Gospels receiving information from eyewitnesses. Other eyewitnesses saw Jesus alive—the 11 apostles, five specific women, Cleopas and a friend, James and more than 500 brethren (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20, 21, Acts 1, 1 Corinthians 15).
No evidence exists of incompetence or fraud on the part of these witnesses. They willingly sealed the truth of their witness by their death. Some will die for a belief they don’t know by experience to be true. Japanese kamikaze pilots did not see the deity of the emperor. Muslim suicide bombers do not have firsthand knowledge of the promised benefits in Paradise. The apostles knew from eyewitness experience their story was true. Their deaths confirm their testimony.
The New Testament records as historical sources bear the marks of trustworthiness: honesty, competence, multiple sources bearing a consistent witness, and incidental confirmation from other evidence. Without position or authority to compel, without selfish advantage to gain, these witnesses simply told the truth.
Exhibit B: Jesus’ Death
A death must precede a resurrection. John observed Jesus’ death on the cross (John 19:31-35). Joseph of Arimathea asked for and buried the body in his personal tomb (Luke 23:50-54). Certain women observed the burial so they could come back and anoint the body (23:55, 56). Experienced executioners acknowledged death had occurred and did not break his legs (John 19:32, 33). Blood and water coming out when the spear entered his body indicates death had occurred (19:34). The centurion in charge agreed Jesus had died (Mark 15:44, 45). Jewish authorities admitted Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:62, 63).
The swoon theory resurfaces periodically alleging Jesus fainted from exhaustion on the cross, then revived in the cool tomb. Medical doctor Alexander Metherell says the beating Jesus sustained would result in the loss of a large amount of blood making him subject to fainting and great thirst. The nails in the wrists would have damaged the medial nerve causing excruciating pain. Crucifixion caused a slow death by asphyxiation and cardiac arrest.
Could Jesus have possibly survived the cross? Dr. Metherell states,
Absolutely not. Remember that he was already in hypovolemic shock from the massive blood loss even before the crucifixion started. He couldn’t possibly have faked his death, because you can’t fake the inability to breathe for long. Besides, the spear thrust into his heart would have settled the issue once and for all.
Dr. William Edwards, in The Journal of the American Medical Association (1986), says, “Clearly, the weight of the historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted.”
Exhibit C: Empty Tomb
On the first day of the week, Jesus’ body was gone from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where it had been placed three days before. The seal had been broken and the entrance stone rolled away. Jesus’ grave clothes were still in place as if the body had vanished.
Many witnesses verified that the tomb was empty.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. She ran and reported to Peter and John ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him’ (John 20:1, 2).
Several women found the stone rolled back with an angel sitting on it. The angel said,
Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him’ (Matthew 28:5, 6).
Peter and John ran to the tomb. They found it empty with the grave wrappings lying there with the head napkin apart from the rest (John 20:3-10).
The guards went to the chief priests and reported the empty tomb (Matthew 28:11). The chief priests and elders invented an absurd explanation, bribing the guards to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.” They assured the guards that if the governor heard of it they would satisfy him, keeping them out of trouble (28:11-15). Their attempt to deny the resurrection presupposes the tomb was vacant.
All four Gospels document the burial in Joseph of Arimathea’s own tomb. The witness of the women is significant. Since Jewish courts did not accept women as witnesses, it is highly unlikely that the account of the women would be an invention. Paul states Jesus died, was buried, and was raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:3-5), making clear his knowledge of the empty tomb. Reports of the resurrection soon after the events allow no time for a legend to develop.
The theories about theft of the body have no historical or rational support. The suggestion that the women went to the wrong tomb is even more incredible. The quickest way to squelch the preaching of the resurrection and refute Christianity would have been to produce Jesus’ corpse. Jewish authorities knew the site of the tomb. No valid explanation of the empty tomb has been offered except that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. The empty tomb refutes the naturalistic theories.
Exhibit D: Appearances
Jesus appeared 11 times following his resurrection over a period of 40 days. He appeared to Mary Magdalene individually (Mark 16:9; John 20:11-18) and to several women (Matthew 28:9, 10). He visited with Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12, 13; Luke 24:13-34).
Jesus’ appearances persuaded the disciples of the reality of his resurrection. He appeared to Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5), to 10 apostles in an upper room, Thomas being absent (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36; John 20:19; 1 Corinthians 15:5), and a week later to the apostles with Thomas present (John 20:24-29). Seven disciples saw him by the Sea of Galilee and ate breakfast with him (21:1-23). The 11 apostles saw him for the last time on the Mount of Olives before he ascended into Heaven (Luke 24:50, 51; Acts 1:6-9).
About 25 years later Paul wrote that over 500 at one time saw the risen Jesus, with over half of them still alive (1 Corinthians 15:6). He appeared to formerly unbelieving half-brother James who became a leader in the church (John 7:5; 1 Corinthians 15:7). Paul had formerly killed Christians, but when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, he became a lifelong advocate for Christ (Acts 9:22, 26). The theory of hallucination makes no sense because many witnesses saw the same thing and they show no evidence of mental instability or delusion.
Exhibit E: Historical Results
The transformation of the disciples into fearless proclaimers of the resurrection constitutes a powerful confirmation of the historical reality of the resurrection. Knowing Christ was alive changed these disillusioned, doubtful, even unbelieving disciples. Opposition, threats, imprisonment, beatings, even death could not stop their testimony.
The origin and growth of the church defies explanation apart from Jesus’ resurrection. Historian Philip Schaff states, “The Christian church rests on the resurrection of the founder. Without this fact the church could never have been born, or if born, it would soon have died a natural death.” Many of the priests could not deny the truth of the gospel and were “obedient to the faith” (6:7).
Our earliest history of the church, the book of Acts, records the role of the living Christ in the early church. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost as he promised (2:33). Stephen, while being stoned, saw Jesus at God’s right hand (7:55). Paul encountered the living Christ when he was on the road to Damascus (9:3-9).
The resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week convinced strong-willed Jewish believers to begin to worship on Sunday (20:7). Two enduring church practices, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, lose all significance without the resurrection (1 Peter 3:21; Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:1-6; 1 Corinthians 11:26). Seeing the living Christ in the lives of believers adds power to the historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection.