Excerpted from “If Christ Has Not Been Raised: Reasoning through the Resurrection”
Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead three days after His execution pumps the heart of the Christian gospel (doctrine) and is Christianity’s central supporting fact (apologetics). The truth of Christianity uniquely stands or falls on Christ’s resurrection. Because of this, the New Testament accounts of Christ’s resurrection warrant careful analysis and reflection.
The writers of these accounts not only report the Resurrection as a factual event but also provide a theological context for and explanation of its overall significance to God’s historical redemptive plan. Christian apologists through the centuries have appealed to five basic strands of evidence as support for the historical and factual nature of the resurrection of Jesus. 1
The Empty Tomb
One of the most fully substantiated facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection is the empty tomb. Most New Testament scholars, even some liberal scholars, agree that solid historical fact stands behind the gospel claim that witnesses found Jesus’ tomb empty on that first Easter morning. Far from being a myth or legend, the report of the empty tomb has a very early date, fits well with what is known of the times archaeologically (concerning burial customs and tombs), and was never challenged, let alone refuted, by the contemporary enemies and critics of Christianity.
If the Jews or Romans had produced the body of Jesus, Christianity would have been disproved immediately. Therefore, the disciples could not have proclaimed a bodily resurrection unless Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty. In ancient Judaism, the concept of resurrection was considered only bodily in nature, not spiritual. The empty tomb requires an adequate explanation. For 2,000 years, Christians have argued that the only consistent explanation for the empty tomb is Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead.
Jesus’ Post-crucifixion Appearances
As mentioned above, it was recorded that numerous people had intimate, empirical encounters with Jesus Christ after His death on the cross. A variety of people interacted with Him at various times and places. Witnesses of the Resurrection claimed to have seen, heard, and touched the resurrected Christ. The same person whom they saw executed three days before was now alive and in their midst. These “in time and in space” physical appearances were reported soon after the actual encounter and cannot reasonably be dismissed as mythical or psychological in nature.
The Apostles’ Transformation
The Book of Acts describes a dramatic and enduring transformation of eleven men from terrified, defeated cowards after Jesus’ crucifixion (as revealed in the Gospels) into courageous preachers and, eventually, martyrs. These men became bold enough to stand against the hostile Jews and Romans in the face of torture and death. Such radical and extensive change deserves an adequate explanation, for human character and conduct do not transform easily or often.
Considering that the apostles fled and even denied knowing Jesus following His initial arrest makes their courage in the face of persecution and execution even more astounding. The apostles attributed the strength of their newfound character to their direct personal encounter with the resurrected Christ. In Christ’s resurrection, the apostles found their unshakable reason to live and die.
Emergence of the Christian Church
What specifically caused the historical emergence of the Christian church? Amazingly, within 400 years Christianity dominated the entire Roman Empire and, over the course of two millennia, the entire Western civilization. Christianity developed a distinct cultural and theological identity apart from traditional Judaism in a short period of time. According to the New Testament, the unique Christian faith came into being directly because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. According to the New Testament, the apostles “turned the world upside down” with the truth of the Resurrection, and the extraordinary, enduring Christian church emerged.
Sunday as a Day of Worship
The Jews worshiped on the Sabbath, which is the seventh day of the week (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). However, the early Christian church gradually changed the day of their worship from the seventh day of the week to the first (Sunday: “the Lord’s Day,” Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2).2 For the early Christian church, Sunday commemorated Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. His being raised to eternal life transformed worship and distinguished the Christian faith from traditional Judaism. Apart from the Resurrection, no reason existed for early followers of Jesus to view Sunday as having any enduring theological or ceremonial significance.
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- For apologetic evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, as well as a critique of alternative naturalistic theories, see William Lane Craig, Knowing the Truth about the Resurrection (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1988); Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 255–98; Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1989); Norman L. Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992); J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 159–83; Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 175–98.
- Sabbatarians, of course, dispute this claim, but it is a reasonable inference from Scripture; see D. A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).