From a historic Christian perspective, both the nature and truth of Christianity rest upon Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead.
Jesus' being raised to new life 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. The apostle Paul explains: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14). “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17).
Since the truth-claims of Christianity hinge on the Resurrection, 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 and explanation of its overall significance to God’s historical redemptive plan.
The entire New Testament was written in light of Christ’s resurrection. Each book therein bears witness to its reality. In fact, this testimony was the essential function of the apostles (Acts 1:22). Jesus' resurrection was not merely a coming back from the dead (resuscitation, near-death experience, reincarnation) but a resurrection into a new type of human life eternal life with a transformed, glorified physical body no longer subject to weakness, pain, sickness, and death. By His resurrection, Jesus Christ fully and completely conquered death .
The New Testament Resurrection Scenario
The four New Testament Gospels and various New Testament epistles reveal essential data concerning Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. The following sections summarize these intriguing events. (See Matt. 26:47-28:20; Mark 14:43-16:8; Luke 22:47-24:53; John 18:1-21:25; Acts 9:1-19; 1 Cor. 15:1-58.)
Jewish religious leaders (chief priests and elders) arrested Jesus of Nazareth and tried Him for blasphemy. The Sanhedrin found Jesus guilty and subsequently took Him to the Roman governor for sentencing. Despite finding no basis for a charge against Him, Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death as an insurrectionist. Roman soldiers beat, mocked, and crucified Him. His lifeless body was taken down from the cross, covered with a burial cloth, and placed in a newly cut tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea (a wealthy and prominent member of the Sanhedrin). A large boulder sealed the entrance to the tomb, and Roman guards were stationed there to ensure that Jesus’ body was not disturbed.
At dawn, three days later (on Sunday morning, “the first day of the week”), a violent earthquake shook the tomb. An angel of the Lord appeared and rolled away the stone. Terrified at the sight of the angel, the guards were paralyzed. Some women followers of Jesus subsequently arrived and discovered the empty tomb. They encountered the angel, who informed them that Jesus was not there, for He had risen from the dead. Hearing about the women’s encounter at the tomb, some of Jesus’ apostles also found the tomb empty later that morning.
Starting on that original Easter Sunday and extending over a forty-day period, Jesus appeared alive to specific individuals and to small and large groups of people. He appeared to friends and enemies, believers and unbelievers, women and men, in public and in private, at different times, and in different locations. The New Testament describes His postresurrection encounters with Mary Magdalene (John 20:10-18), Mary and the other women (Matt. 28:1-10), Peter (1 Cor. 15:5), two disciples on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), ten apostles (Luke 24:36-49), eleven apostles (John 20:24-31), seven apostles (John 21), all the apostles (Matt. 28:16-20), five hundred disciples (1 Cor. 15:6), James (1 Cor. 15:7), all the apostles again (Acts 1:4-8), and finally, later, to Saul, who became Paul (Acts 9:1-9).
Characteristics of Jesus’ resurrected body are also described. He still bore the marks of the wounds in His hands, feet, and side (John 20:20). He could be seen and touched as a physical body of flesh and bone (Matt. 28:9; Luke 24:37-39). He invited people to examine his body (Luke 24:39-40; John 20:20, 27). Jesus even ate and drank with his disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24:41-43; Acts 10:41). Though certainly material and physical in nature, Jesus’ resurrected body had been transformed into a glorious, immortal, and imperishable body. Jesus was capable of things that ordinary mortals are not; for example, He could appear and disappear in a closed room. Thus, Jesus’ body before the resurrection and his body after the resurrection showed both continuity and discontinuity.
Five Strands of Evidence for Jesus Christ’s Resurrection
As support for the historical and factual nature of the resurrection of Jesus, Christian apologists through the centuries have appealed to five basic strands of evidence.1 These strands of evidence may be summarized as follows:
- 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 original 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 (i.e., 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 immediately disproved. 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 a spiritual resurrection. The empty tomb requires an adequate explanation. For two thousand years, Christians have argued that the only consistent explanation for the empty tomb is Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead.
- The postcrucifixion appearances: According to the New Testament, 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 postcrucifixion appearances of Jesus Christ weigh heavily in demonstrating the objective truth of the Resurrection.
- The transformation of the apostles: 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 does 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.
- The emergence of the Christian church: What specifically caused the emergence of the Christian church in history? Amazingly, within 400 years Christianity came to dominate the entire Roman Empire and, over the course of two millennia, thoroughly dominated Western civilization. Christianity developed a distinct cultural and theological identity apart from that of 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 became a day of worship: The Jews worshipped 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 day of the week (Sunday: “the Lord’s Day,” Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 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 (the first day of the week) as having any enduring theological or ceremonial significance.
Six Alternative Explanatory Hypotheses
Skeptics often attempt to explain the events surrounding Christ’s resurrection by purely natural means. Six naturalistic hypotheses have gained some popularity, but each can be critiqued by objective standards. Logical consistency, explanatory power and scope, fidelity to known facts, avoiding unwarranted assumptions, and making claims that can be tested and proven true or false characterize good explanatory hypotheses.
1. The Resurrection of Jesus is simply a legend or myth.
Many of the New Testament books (Gospels and various epistles) were written soon after the reported events occurred. Time simply did not allow for legends and myths to enter into the biblical accounts. Consider two arguments:
First, while Jesus’ death probably took place somewhere between a.d. 30 and a.d. 33, good evidence suggests that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were written by the early 60s (possibly the late 50s for Mark), within a generation of the events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Gospels do not mention three significant events that transpired between a.d. 60 and 703—namely the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Nero (circa mid-60s), the martyrdom of the apostles Peter and Paul (circa 64-66), and the fall of Jerusalem under the Roman military leader Titus (70). None of these significant events—undoubtedly of great interest to Christians—were mentioned. As a result, some New Testament scholars have concluded that the synoptic Gospels already existed by the early 60s.
Second, since the Book of Acts follows the Gospel of Luke as a companion work, and since Acts does not mention the events listed previously, the synoptic Gospels may have been written even earlier, especially if one accepts the popular theory that Mark was the first gospel written.
Considering that written and oral sources bridge the gap between the time of Jesus’ death and the time the Gospels were actually written buttresses these two arguments. Some of the apostle Paul’s letters (Galatians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians) were probably written as early as the late 40s or early 50s. Source criticism (the study of sources which stand behind the written text) indicates that oral and possibly written sources stood behind the Greek Gospels, bridging the gap even more tightly between the events of Jesus’ life and the written records. New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg states that ample reasons exist to believe that Matthew, Mark, and Luke used such sources. “Source criticism cannot demonstrate that the first accounts of the various portions of Jesus’ life were entirely trustworthy, but it can suggest that those accounts arose in a time and place in which many who had personally known Jesus still lived.”4
The demythologizing theory (the idea that myth-encrusted facts surround Jesus’ life) only seems possible if one postulates several generations over which the mythology concerning Christ grew up.5 In fact, A. N. Sherwin-White, Oxford scholar of ancient Greek and Roman history, argues that myth and legend require the span of two full generations to accrue and distort historical fact.6 Given the short interval between Jesus’ life and the emergence of the gospel records, time would have been insufficient for legends and myths to enter into biblical accounts. Legend expert Julius Muller states that legend cannot replace fact so long as eyewitnesses remain alive.7
A further reason for rejecting the myth and legend theory is that the apostles of Jesus recognized the difference between myth and factual eyewitness testimony, and they solemnly asserted that they witnessed historical events (Luke 1:1-4; John 19:35; Gal. 1:11-12; 1 Cor. 15:3-8; 2 Pet. 1:16; 1 John 1:1-2). Rather than creating myth, the apostles actively attempted to squelch rumors and untruths before they could spread (John 21:22-25).
The gospel writers also gave careful attention to details. They related specific facts of Jesus’ historical time period (including names, dates, events, customs, etc.). Historically speaking, the central criterion for including the Gospels in the New Testament canon was that they emerged from eyewitnesses or associates of eyewitnesses.
The gospel accounts stand apart in style or in content from other known mythical writings.8 Biblical miracles are not bizarre or frivolous like other mythological literature (e.g., Greek mythology). Jesus’ miracles are always described within the context of His ministry, specifically to glorify God and meet legitimate human needs. The historical and the miraculous stand together side by side in the Gospels in a way that is clearly distinct from mythological literature.
While some have attempted to tie the resurrection of Jesus to the worship of allegedly resurrected fertility gods in ancient pagan religions (Osiris, Adonis, Attis, Mithra, etc.),9 such comparisons are superficial, inexact, and often the product of late sources. Thus, they demonstrate no historical connection with, or influence upon, Christianity. None of these pagan religious stories have the historical foundation that surrounds the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The typical reasoning of advocates for demythologizing (getting behind the myth) of the gospel accounts is also fallacious. They often set forth circular arguments for rejecting the Gospels as history: They reject the divinity of Christ because they reject the gospel texts. They reject the gospel texts because they think the Gospels are myth. They think the Gospels are myth because miraculous events are described which speak of God becoming man (i.e., the divinity of Christ).10 This reasoning clearly “begs the question” (its premises illegitimately depend upon the assumed conclusion) and exposes a presumed antisupernatural bias. The problem is one of presuppositions, not of historicity.
Since good evidence supports the conclusion that the Gospels are early sources, one can reasonably argue that if the gospel writers had departed from the historical facts (either by exaggeration or outright invention), hostile witnesses familiar with the events of Jesus’ life could have and would have exposed them. As textual scholar F. F. Bruce writes, it could not have been easy “to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of His disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened.”11 The apostles, confident in their testimony, appealed to the firsthand knowledge of unbelievers conversant with the facts of Jesus’ life (Acts 2:22-24; 26:25-27).
Viewing the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a legend or myth ignores the solid historical support behind the event, seems deeply rooted in unsupported antisupernatural presuppositions, and fails to reflect the short interval of time between the emergence of the gospel writings themselves and the actual events reported and described.
2. The disciples stole the body and created a hoax.
According to the gospel record, after the Resurrection, some of the Jewish religious leaders bribed the guards to say that they fell asleep at the tomb and that Jesus’ apostles came in the night and stole the body (Matt. 28:11-15). Regardless of how this story started, it became in effect the first alternative, naturalistic theory concerning Jesus’ resurrection. On that basis it deserves analysis.
Were the apostles capable of stealing the body? The need to bypass the Roman guards and move the large, sealed stone in front of the tomb makes this theft highly unlikely, especially since the apostles acted cowardly after Jesus’ initial arrest. Moreover, if the guards were asleep, then how would they know the identity of whoever stole the body?
What possible motivation would the apostles have for stealing the body anyway? They had nothing to gain and virtually everything to lose by doing so. Creating a hoax concerning Jesus' resurrection would only have brought them meaningless hardship, persecution, martyrdom, and even possible damnation for their blasphemy. Why would they be willing to die for what they knew to be false? Such a ruse would be certain to come apart under pressure. The apostles were hated, scorned, excommunicated, imprisoned, and tortured. One might add that in the Gospels, the apostles do come across as rather simple, unimaginative folk.
If the apostles or others (later members of the church) fabricated the story of Christ’s resurrection, that story would never have included Jesus’ appearance to women. First century Israel did not consider women to be credible witnesses. And why would the apostles present themselves in such an unflattering light? Such peculiar details seem inconsistent with invention but consistent with honesty.
This extremely implausible hoax hypothesis fails to fit the facts. It lacks true explanatory power and scope. It cannot explain the dramatic change in the apostles. Nor does this hypothesis explain the Resurrection appearances to individuals other than the apostles.
3. The women went to the wrong tomb.
Grief and confusion following Jesus’ crucifixion might have caused the women followers of Jesus to mistakenly go to the wrong tomb, some skeptics suggest. According to the gospel accounts, however, the women knew precisely where the tomb was. But even if this unlikely mistake took place, it raises substantial questions. Didn’t Joseph of Arimathea know the correct location of his own tomb? Why didn’t the apostles correct such a mistake? Were the Roman soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb also sent to the wrong one? Since Jewish and Roman officials wanted to squash Christianity, why didn't they deploy the manpower to find the right tomb (and the body) and thus put an end to Christianity before it really began?
This wrong tomb hypothesis offers no explanation of the Resurrection appearances, the transformation of the apostles, or the formation of the Christian church. It plays fast and loose with the facts, is simplistic, and lacks explanatory power and scope.
4. Jesus wasn't really dead (swoon theory). He only appeared dead, but then subsequently revived in the tomb and declared Himself to His disciples as the ‘risen Lord!’
Roman executioners operated under the constant threat of the death penalty if they allowed a prisoner to escape. This threat made them experts. According to the gospel accounts, the Roman soldiers thrust a spear into Jesus’ side to confirm that He no longer lived. Blood and water flowed from Christ’s pierced heart indicating He had expired (John 19:34-35). In light of the conclusion that Jesus was already dead, the executioners found no need to break His legs, the customary way to hasten suffocation (John 19:36-37).
A mere man could not survive severe torture, crucifixion, and three days and nights in a cold tomb with no medical attention. Roman guards could not have been overcome by a half-dead corpse. If only a man, Jesus could not have convinced His disciples that He gloriously and triumphantly rose from the dead when His medical condition was, at best, “critical.” And even if this incredible story were somehow true, where did Jesus go?
The swoon theory clearly violates all medical logic and makes Jesus of Nazareth out to be superhuman. Nothing is known about the historic Jesus that might lead one to believe Him a charlatan. This hypothesis clearly fails as an acceptable explanatory hypothesis.
5. The followers of Jesus suffered from hallucinations.
Hallucinations are understood to be private, subjective mental experiences (mental projections) that fail to correspond to objective reality. Typically brief experiences, hallucinations are usually induced by drugs or by extreme deprivation of food, drink, and sleep, or by an extremely volatile state of mind.12 Since various people witnessed the Resurrection appearances at various times, in various places, under various circumstances, the hallucination hypothesis simply cannot reasonably account for such data. Grieving Mary in the garden may have been a possible candidate for a hallucination, but those not favorably disposed to Jesus, such as Jesus’ half-brother James, or the openly hostile Saul clearly were not. It seems impossible that the 500 witnesses referred to by Paul (1 Cor. 15:6) could have simultaneously experienced the same hallucination.
As orthodox Jews, the apostles did not believe in a risen Messiah. Their concept of resurrection was limited to the general resurrection of mankind in the future divine judgment. Hallucinations merely project what is already in the mind. Since the apostles had no resurrection expectations, they could never have had a resurrection hallucination. The hallucination hypothesis also fails to account for the empty tomb. Like most of the other hypotheses, it makes no sense of the existing facts and, therefore, lacks any real explanatory power.
6. Jesus had an identical twin brother who was separated at birth but later returned to impersonate the resurrected Christ.13
An incredible state of affairs would have existed if this hypothesis were true. This Jesus look-a-like would somehow discover his amazing resemblance to Jesus of Nazareth. He would no doubt have had to study the public ministry of Jesus and then lurk in the shadows awaiting Jesus’ death, only then to present himself as the resurrected Christ. But first he’d need to bypass the Roman guards and move the large sealed stone in front of the tomb to steal the body of Jesus. Would conspirators help him? Would the marks of the cross on his hands, feet, and side be self-inflicted? After forty days of appearances, this man would then disappear completely. How? What happened to this man? And what would motivate a man to do such things?
This new and creative naturalistic hypothesis has no clear basis in the gospel accounts. It contradicts what Luke 2:1-20 reveals about the personal details surrounding Jesus’ birth (i.e., a single child born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem). Like some of the other hypotheses examined, this one is in effect nothing more than an ad hoc hypothesis emerging from antisupernatural presuppositions. Some individuals may reason that since miracles don’t happen, any natural explanation, no matter how unusual and implausible, is better.
After almost two millennia the only genuinely reasonable explanatory hypothesis for the events surrounding Jesus’ death is that the apostles told the truth and Jesus truly rose bodily from the dead. The proper way to examine such a miraculous claim is to carefully scrutinize the evidence and follow wherever the facts lead. It is logically illegitimate to reject the Resurrection a priori based upon a preconceived commitment to naturalism. As amazing as the Resurrection may be, the bell of truth resonates on every level.
Contemplation of the inevitability and imminence of one’s death can quickly lead to existential angst, desperation, and despair. The truth and the promise of the resurrected Lord delivers all who believe in Him from this dreaded human predicament. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).
Sidebar: Ten Essential Points About the Resurrection
The following 10 points convey essential theological information about the resurrection of Christ and help one think through the most important elements of the doctrine, especially its implications about the deity of Christ.
- The Resurrection confirms Jesus Christ’s identity as the divine Messiah, Savior, and Lord (Rom. 1:3-4; 14:9). It proves Jesus to be who He said He was. In His resurrection, Jesus Christ permanently identified with humanity and became the God-man forever.
- By the Resurrection, God the Father vindicates Jesus Christ’s redemptive mission and message (Matt. 16:21; 28:6). Jesus’ resurrection confirms His words as true.
- Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (Acts 2:24; 3:15) involved all three members of the Trinity: Father (Rom. 6:4; 1 Cor. 6:14; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20), Son (John 10:17-18; 11:25), and Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:11).
- The Resurrection designates Jesus Christ as the ever-living Head of the Christian church (Eph. 1:19-22).
- Christ’s resurrection power generates and ensures the believer’s salvation (Rom. 4:25; 10:9-10; Eph. 2:5-6; Phil. 3:10).
- Christ’s resurrection power enables all believers to live lives of gratitude to God (Rom. 6:12-13).
- Christ’s resurrection supplies the pledge and paradigm for the future bodily resurrection of all believers (1 Cor. 6:14; 15:20, 2 Cor. 9:14; Col. 1;18; 1 Thess. 4:14).
- Christ’s resurrection answers mankind’s greatest predicament, the inevitability of death. The Resurrection provides hope, purpose, meaning, and confidence in the presence of death (John 11:25-26; Rom. 14:7-8).
- The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the major theme of the apostles’ original preaching and teaching (Acts 1:22; 2:31; 4:2, 33; 17:18) and the principle doctrinal tenet of the New Testament as a whole.
- The truth or falsity of the Christian message rests squarely upon the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:14-18).