“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless” 1 Corinthians 15:17 NET The resurrection is the critical doctrine and historical basis of our faith. The case for the resurrection can draw on both biblical and external evidence. This article provides a brief summary of the evidence.
The resurrection is the rock on which the Christian faith is built. We believe a man called Jesus lived, died, and most importantly was raised to life again. If that final event did not occur, then Christianity is futile. This was the opinion of Paul, the foremost preacher and theologian after Christ. Conversely, if the resurrection is established, all other basic principles follow. Whatever trouble we face, faith in the resurrection provides a sure foundation. It establishes the identity of Jesus and God’s purpose with him (cp Matt 16:18).
Can we prove the resurrection beyond all reasonable doubt? No. But an individual can reach a point at which the resurrection is the only appropriate explanation of the accumulated evidence. It is not simply a matter of blind faith and we do not deny the importance of evidence. The Lord invited his disciples to touch him to validate his existence (Luke 24:39), and deliberately provided evidence of his resurrection (Acts 1:3).
The scholarly consensus, even amongst atheists and agnostics, holds Jesus existed and died. The self-described agnostic and scholar Bart Ehrman states “the view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet. That in itself is not proof, of course. Expert opinion is, at the end of the day, still opinion.”1 While he deals at length with the controversy, he is quite clear about poor quality of the so called “evidence” against the existence of Jesus.
Where should we expect to find evidence? A believer might rely heavily on the Bible, of course. But this is not always acceptable for an agnostic, or a believer with doubts. Arguing in favor of the resurrection on the basis of the Bible alone is likely to be viewed as circular reasoning. We should look for impartial evidence, but also not out of hand dismiss the bible as a source. It must be acknowledged that there are several distinct lines of legitimate evidence, including eyewitness testimony in the Bible.
1. History provides some external witness to Jesus’ existence and death.
Josephus, a first century Jew, wrote of the death by crucifixion of Jesus and his disciples’ reaction. Some later versions of his text show obvious interpolations, but scholars believe an early Aramaic version is closer to the original reading. “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”2
Tacitus, the Roman historian, also makes reference to the crucifixion with respect to the persecution of Christians by Nero in the early 60s. “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”3
Although we might expect significant individual records of this sort, these were not generally kept in Jesus’ day. Considering Jesus’ criminal status in a remote Roman province, it is remarkable that we have any secular records which mention him at all.
2. History provides evidence of the key political players.
Pontius Pilate was once considered an invention but “an inscription found at Caesarea Maritima in 1961”4 confirmed his existence, rank and location.
Caiaphas the High Priest who led the Jewish leadership in seeking for Jesus’ crucifixion is also acknowledged as a historical person, even by those who regard the man Jesus as a myth.5
3. History provides evidence of the local political reaction.
A desire for Jewish independence, coupled with messianic expectations, is evident in the gospels. But by any normal measure Jesus was a failed messianic pretender. The very method of his execution was something “generally limited to foreigners and people of the lower class, particularly slaves.”6
Yet contrary to common sense, and the eyewitness accounts of his death, large numbers of Jews proclaimed Jesus had been resurrected. This opinion brought them into conflict with Jewish authorities and, within a few decades, into conflict with Roman authorities as well. Despite intense persecution they maintained the truth of their claims. They were so successful they created a cross cultural spiritual movement, which in time became the dominant religion throughout the Roman Empire.
4. A bodily resurrection is easily disproven.
The Jewish authorities were clearly opposed to the threatening persona of Jesus given his potential disruption to the established order. When his body went missing, it was imperative to dispel the rumours. They could have arrested the disciples who were known to them and in general circulation, extracted a confession, and determined wherever the new burial site was. They could have obtained the body of Jesus and showed it to the masses. Yet no body was ever discovered.
The Jews had assigned a squad of soldiers to guard the tomb – specifically to prevent the body being stolen (Matt 23:63-67). But the body vanished despite their presence. Something about the soldiers’ experience was odd. If someone was stealing the body they would have to kill the soldiers – but there was no conflict. Having failed in their duty, their superiors could and should have executed them. However the soldiers were kept alive – a tacit acknowledgement that something more remarkable had happened than the entire guard falling asleep on the job.
The Jewish leadership did circulate the story that Jesus’ body was stolen by his disciples. They later proceeded to have a number of them arrested, beaten, and in some cases executed. But no confessions were ever extracted on the location of the apparently stolen body.
A well-equipped and highly motivated group could not disprove the resurrection, despite every opportunity to do so.
5. The testimony of Saul of Tarsus is surprising.
A hostile witness is a powerful one, and Saul of Tarsus was just such a witness. Clearly, he changed his mind about the fate of Jesus. So then there are two possible options. Either his experience was real, and Jesus was raised, or too much study had indeed made Saul mad. But even a simple reading of his later work provides sound evidence he was not mad. Saul (or Paul as he became known) possessed a very keen mind. This man, who had an established place in the inner circle of Jewish society, threw it all away because he was convinced Jesus was resurrected. The turnaround was spectacular, given his past role in persecuting the believers.
6. The gospels are not logical if viewed as anything but authentic. Consider the following elements:
a. Jesus is said to have first appeared to women. As Keener notes this sounds authentic because “The witness of women was considered unreliable in that culture…this detail is definitely not one that ancient Christians would have invented, because it did not appeal to their culture.”7
b. Jesus’ disciples are portrayed in various unflattering ways. They are slow to grasp who Jesus claimed to be before his death. They squabble about position and contradict Jesus. They are portrayed as scared, confused and barely faithful. They decide to go fishing after the crucifixion, for instance, and do not heed Jesus’ previous instructions. They also fail to recognise Jesus when he first appears to them after the resurrection. Documents created to establish the disciples’ legacy would hardly be so consistently unkind.
c. The gospels contain obvious surface contradictions. This is consistent with genuine eyewitness accounts, rather than falsified accounts after the fact. Any editorial review would have removed such glaring “errors”.
The following texts are recommended as additional resources. We may not accept all their conclusions, but the arguments are thought provoking nonetheless.
- Habermas, G. R. (1996). The historical Jesus: ancient evidence for the life of Christ (pp. 193–194). Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company
- Ehrman, B. (2012). Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperOne
- Gaston, Thomas (ed) Reasons Tyne and Wear, UK. Willow Publications
- Kreeft, P., & Tacelli, R. K. (1994). Handbook of Christian apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions (p. 16). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press
- Ehrman, B. (2012). Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperOne
- Habermas, G. R. (1996). The historical Jesus: ancient evidence for the life of Christ (pp. 193–194). Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company.
- Ibid., p. 188
- Evans, C. A. (2000). Pilate Inscription. In C. A. Evans & S. E. Porter (Eds.), Dictionary of New Testament background: a compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship (electronic ed., p. 804). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Brandes, Georg Jesus: A Myth, trans. Edwin Björkman (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1926), p. 46
- O’Collins, G. G. (1992). Crucifixion. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 1, pp. 1207–1208). New York: Doubleday.
- Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Mt 28:9–10). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.