Of all of the truths of Christianity, none may be more pivotal or important than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without the resurrection, Christians are teaching in vain and of all people are to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Without the resurrection, Christianity is nothing. If someone could show me the bones of Jesus, I would stop being a Christian. The resurrection is of the utmost importance. In the past two chapters, I’ve argued for the rationality and evidence of Christianity in science and the Bible’s accuracy. If you can see the truth in those arguments, then you can begin to take more seriously the resurrection.
Minimal Facts Method
Many Christians will defend the resurrection by arguing for the reliability of the Gospels. I’ve already done this in a previous chapter, so I won’t touch on this much in this current chapter. Instead I’ll be using what has been called the “Minimal Facts Method” by Gary Habermas. Habermas is a one-of-a-kind scholar that deserves an introduction that I think will strengthen the way you view his method. Habermas is arguably the greatest resurrection scholar of our day. He has read through over 3400 different academic articles on the resurrection by scholars all across the spectrum of belief/disbelief written in English, French and German dating from 1975 to today. He categorized these articles based on their claims about the resurrection. After reading through these articles (something Habermas continues to do) he says that over 75% of current scholars that have written on the issue (whether or not they are believers) would affirm that the resurrection or something like it happened.
Habermas’ famous “Minimal Facts Method” uses facts that are upheld by virtually every single scholar. He then uses these facts, in classic historian style, to try and postulate what probably happened in light of the accepted facts. I’ll stress again that these facts are held by a majority of scholars (75%). Habermas only uses Scripture that is upheld by scholars that don’t claim to be believers in order to dissipate any issues of dispute. Here are the twelve facts that Habermas has found to be upheld by the majority (75%) of scholars:
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- He was buried.
- His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
- The tomb was empty (the most contested).
- The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus (the most important proof).
- The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers.
- The resurrection was the central message.
- They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.
- The Church was born and grew.
- Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.
- James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was a family skeptic).
- Paul was converted to the faith (Paul was an outsider skeptic).42
Even though the majority of scholars hold to these twelve facts, Habermas stripped the facts down even more so there would be as little disagreement as possible. The following five facts are considered the true minimal facts that virtually every scholar holds to:
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- His disciples believed that He rose and appeared to them.
- The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed.
- The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.
- The tomb was empty.43
Read over these facts again and, in light of them, decide what you think really happened.
The Nazareth Inscription
Now, add to those facts the finding of the Nazareth Inscription. This major archeological find comes straight from Nazareth (Jesus’ hometown). The inscription is dated AD 41 and is a later rescript of an edict put out by the Roman Emperor Claudius. The edict contained in the Nazareth Inscription lays out a warning from Claudius that anyone who removes a body from a tomb will be punished greatly (even possibly put to death).44 Within ten years of the resurrection, we have a Roman emperor aware of the events surrounding resurrection and the events are serious enough, in his eyes, to warrant an edict calling for the death of people removing bodies from tombs. It doesn’t say that grave robbery involving valuables will be punished, but rather the actual taking of a body. For Romans and Jews, the resurrection would have been an embarrassment that would have forced them to explain it away to keep their dignity in the situation. It’s no surprise that after such embarrassment, a Roman Emperor would have made such an edict. The Nazareth Inscription pushes forward even further the fact that the grave of Christ was empty. This means that we have to conclude that either the disciples stole the body and lived for a lie, or that Jesus actually rose from the dead as the Bible says.
The resurrection seems to be the best explanation for these facts. The other theories fall short. But before just conceding that, let’s take a look at some of the more well-known theories.
One of the most famous theories is that the disciples and the people in the Bible’s post-resurrection appearances were merely hallucinating rather than actually seeing Jesus. This theory is left wanting in a major way. Hallucinations are not mass phenomenon. They are individual experiences. If two people right next to each other had the same hallucination it would be incredible. The odds of this happening are amazingly slim. Now imagine that the disciples and the over 500 people had the same vision and the odds are astronomical. Consider that when the Bible refers to 500 people it is just referring to men, not women and children. Add them to the count of people with the same hallucination and the number rises to probably over 1000 or 1500 people. Finally, factor in that these people were in different places, at different times having these hallucinations. The odds of over 1500 people having the same hallucination at different times and places are more improbable than those of the resurrection taking place. This theory would be more of a miracle than the resurrection!
Another major theory opposed to the resurrection is the Swoon Theory. This theory postulates that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross but that He fell out of consciousness and was placed in the tomb. The list of problems with this theory is long. First off, no one survived Roman crucifixions. Roman soldiers were punished with death if someone crucified didn’t die. This would have been especially true in the case of Christ who had caused quite an uproar around the time of His crucifixion. Jesus had been beaten severely before His crucifixion, so He would have had massive blood loss and would have been in shock. Many medical professionals, Christian and non-Christian have written in professional medical journals stating that Jesus surely died on the cross. Toward the end of His crucifixion, to ensure that He was dead, Jesus was stabbed in the heart with a spear. Most medical professionals that have commented on the matter will say that Christ died before He was stabbed, but that if He was still clinging to life, the stab to the heart would have ended it all. Even more compelling than the fact that Christ would have been dead is the fact that even if He hadn’t died and just came back to consciousness in the tomb, He wouldn’t have been able to move the stone covering the entrance to the tomb. The stone was huge and would have been tough for a healthy man to move, let alone a man that was suffering from extreme blood loss, shock, and was barely clinging to life. Even if He got the stone rolled away, one of the Roman guards watching the tomb would have killed Him if they saw Him come out. But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Christ didn’t die on the cross and that He somehow moved the tombstone and left without being killed by the guards. Even if all of this happened, Jesus would have looked so sorry that no one would have thought of Him as worthy of starting a major religious movement for. He would have been covered in blood and barely conscious. That’s hardly someone that 1000+ would be willing to follow. This theory falls apart by not accounting for all of the facts.
It seems pretty clear that the resurrection best accounts for the facts widely upheld. But are there other evidences supporting the resurrection theory outside of the Bible? There are, in fact. Let’s take a look at some of them. The first one we’ll look at is from Annals written by a Roman senator and historian named Tacitus. In one particular passage of his writings he refers to Nero, Christians, Christ, and the early church movement. Here’s what Tacitus has to say:
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. 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, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”28
There are several things to notice in this passage. First, Tacitus states that Jesus was crucified (“suffered the extreme penalty”) at the hands of Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. This puts Jesus at the exact place and time where the Bible says He was. Next, notice that Tacitus says that soon after Christ’s death Christianity sparked up and grew, even going to Judea. He calls it a mischievous superstition. Religions don’t start up because someone died. Rather, they grow amidst hatred and cultural contempt because someone rose from the dead.
But Tacitus isn’t the only ancient extra-biblical source we have that has confirmed the accuracy of the Gospels and given us good reason to think Christ rose from the dead. One of the most famous sources comes from the Antiquities of the Jews by Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in the 90s AD. Here’s what he has to say about Jesus:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”29
There are parts of this passage that are disputed, but on the whole, the authenticity of Josephus’ testimony is widely accepted. The most disputed lines are “if indeed one ought to call him a man” and “He is the Christ”.
Even if this line is removed, we still have a major testimony for Christ. This would be the most direct extra-biblical testimony for Jesus.
Putting the Evidence for Jesus in Perspective
It’s important to understand that for most historical people or events mentioned in ancient writings, we only have one reference to them. Believe it or not, for many of the famous ancient historical figures we believe to have existed, we have a single source for them. A person that has a couple good sources referring to them is considered a historical gem. Jesus has at least eleven total sources referencing Him. This is almost unheard of. This is even more incredible when you consider that Rome decimated Jerusalem in A.D. 70. During this decimation much of the literature written about Christ, up to that point, was probably burned. In addition to this, many of the eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection were probably killed during this period of destruction.
Although it’s popular to question the existence of Jesus because of the Jesus Seminar or the Finding Jesus movement of the 20th century, no serious scholars question Christ’s existence. What may seem like a widely held belief in pop culture is a minuscule one in academia. If we questioned the existence of Jesus, we would have to bring into question virtually every single ancient figure we know of. Of course this is ridiculous. The only reason Jesus’ existence is questioned by people at this point is because they object to Christianity. Bias clouds their research. The only real issues with Jesus that are debated by scholars are His resurrection and deity. But, as we will see, there is plenty of evidence that Jesus was both resurrected from the dead and divine.
Of the eleven sources we have for the crucifixion of Christ45, several of them give mention to or explicitly state that Christ rose from the dead. In an earlier chapter, I argued for the reliability of the Gospels and mentioned the 1 Corinthians 15 creed dating back to within 3 years (and some scholars would say months) of Christ’s death and resurrection. If we even out the playing field, strip away the biases, and just treat the evidence as all other historical figures and documents are treated, the Bible, Jesus Christ, and the events surrounding His crucifixion and resurrection become abundantly clear and should be treated as fact. If last chapter spoke to you at all, you will begin to see the Bible as an accurate source. And after last chapter we can know that even if the Bible wasn’t inspired, it would still be the most accurate ancient history book the world has ever seen.
Evidences of Embarrassment and Useless Lies
In addition to the extra-biblical evidences and widely agreed upon facts surrounding the resurrection, we have more evidence that supports the claims of the resurrection and it comes from a familiar source. This evidence comes from none other than the disciples. For the non-Christian, even after the last chapter, this may seem like cheating, but hear me out. The other evidence I’m referring to comes in two forms: the principle of embarrassment and useless lies.
The principle of embarrassment is another way of phrasing the question, “Why would the disciples write about so many of their embarrassing moments in the Bible if blunders didn’t happen?”
Think about it: throughout so much of the Gospels, the disciples and early Christians are constantly embarrassing themselves. Peter denies knowing Jesus, James (Jesus’ half-brother) denies Jesus’ claims of divinity until the resurrection even though he lived with him for years, and finally (among plenty of other examples) the disciples bicker and argue time after time throughout the Gospels. Why would the early church and writers of the Bible keep/include those instances in the Bible if they weren’t true? Think about how often we either cover up or just conveniently don’t mention our mess ups. If I were writing an elaborate lie of a story, I wouldn’t tell people about all of the times I messed up. The only reason I would tell someone about that stuff is if it all really happened.
Another point often added to the criterion of embarrassment is the fact that women are said to have been the first eye witnesses to Christ’s resurrection. In that day, the testimony of women was useless in court and often disregarded. If the disciples were concocting a big fib, why have it hinge, in some ways, on testimonies that would be useless in a court of law? The testimony of women would have only been included if the resurrection had actually happened and the women were truly there to witness it.
The other point of evidence from the disciples is known as the criterion of useless lies. The majority of the disciples died because of their belief in the divinity of Jesus and their preaching of His resurrection. If you know something to be false, chances are you aren’t going to die for that falsity. People are typically only martyrs for things they know to be true. If the disciples knew Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead, why did they preach this truth until their deaths? Now, there’s an important clarification to be made here. Just because someone dies for a particular belief doesn’t make that belief true. The terrorists flying the planes involved in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers died for a belief that most people don’t hold to be true. The important thing to understand is that while people may die for false beliefs all of the time, they don’t die for beliefs they know to be false. The disciples truly thought Jesus had risen from the dead, and with all of the evidence and arguments we have in their favor, it’s hard not to believe they’re right.
Reflections on the Resurrection
To me, we can debate sources and ancient texts all day (even though we should come to the conclusion that they uphold Christ’s claims if we looked at the evidence clearly), but the clearest apologetic for Christ’s resurrection is that we’re still talking about Him today. The vast majority of ancient people were never mentioned in any text or artifact. Yet here we have Jesus, an average built and average looking man who was the son of an average dad who had an average job, born in a small, forgettable city, and He’s the center of the greatest religion in the world. This seems too good to be a coincidence.
It would have been incredibly easy to prove Jesus wasn’t the Son of God and that He wasn’t resurrected. All they would have had to do was show people His body after three days. Jesus was buried very close to Jerusalem. Anyone could have walked to His tomb after three days and seen that he was still in his grave. Many people wanted to prove Jesus wrong (the Pharisees, the Romans, etc.) and it would have been an easy thing to do. Yet, here we are today, over 2000 years later, and no one has found Jesus’ body. The disciples wouldn’t have taken it. Why would they risk their lives and ultimately die for something they knew to be a lie? The fact that we’re still talking about Jesus today, without a body to disprove His claims, is a powerful apologetic.
The historical facts surrounding it and following it are amazing. The world’s largest religion formed and grew exponentially amidst extreme oppression and against extreme odds. Rome, the very country that crucified Christ, thought of Him as foolish, and oppressed and slaughtered many of His followers, adopted Christianity as its national religion less than 400 years later. The nation that tried to squash Christianity ultimately became a powerful vehicle for the spread of the religion.
The resurrection means everything to Christians. If it were ever disproved, Christianity would fall apart. Yet it never has been invalidated. In the past 2000 years, there have been thousands of religions and philosophies that have waxed and waned from human consciousness. Fad philosophies and religions, one after another, have come and gone. Christianity and the claim of the resurrection have stayed constant. There is something about the truth of the resurrection that billions of people can’t seem to deny. Whether it’s the prophecies calling for it hundreds of years prior, the lack of the body, the Gospel claims, outside sources, etc., people are drawn to it. The idea that Christ would humble Himself and come to earth and die a brutal death to save us from our sins is amazing. Then, when you consider the real historical evidence supporting it, it becomes awe-inspiring. There is no greater triumph over evil and death than Christ’s resurrection. On that day, Jesus Christ showed the world the most beautiful form of irony it had ever seen: He put death in its grave.
Some people will object and say, “Even if Christ did rise from the dead, God should have sent Christ earlier”
William Lane Craig, during a debate with famed atheist Christopher Hitchens, brought up a point that answers this objection beautifully. He says:
“The Population Reference Bureau estimates that the number of people who have ever lived on this planet is about 105 billion people. Only 2 percent of them were born prior to the advent of Christ.
Eric Crepes of the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research says, ‘God’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Christ showed up just before the exponential explosion in the world’s population.’
The Bible says, ‘In the fullness of time God sent forth His Son.’
And when Christ came the nation of Israel had been prepared. The Roman peace dominated the Mediterranean World. It was an age of literacy and learning. The stage was set for the advent of God’s son into the world.
In this we can see the wisdom of God in orchestrating His providential plan for the world.”46
God sent Christ, as the climax of His beautiful universal narrative, at the perfect time. His plan is evident throughout the Bible, creation, and ultimately the resurrection.
When thinking of the resurrection, it’s important to remember that it wouldn’t be possible without death. Christ couldn’t have risen if He hadn’t died in the first place. For the Christian, death is not something to be feared because, for the Christian, death is what it took for them to have true life in the first place. The death to one’s old self and sin allows for a new life and new joy that can’t be found in other way or worldview. It took the death of Christ on the cross for the new life of the Christian to even be possible. While physical death marks the end of our time on this broken planet and may bring some level of sorrow, for the Christian, it brings an even greater level of joy as it marks the beginning of new life; an eternal one of ultimate satisfaction in a perfect relationship with God. For the secularist, death marks the end of an ultimately meaningless life that can be attributed to nothing but the random product of time + chance + matter. For the secularist death is scary because it marks an end of not just physical life, but of all joy too. The Bible says that Jesus is offering you an opportunity to have permanent joy by partaking in a perfect relationship with a God who is madly in love with you. The Bible also says that if we don’t worship God even the rocks will cry out to praise His name. The resurrection and the new life and relationship with God possible because of it should be all the reason we need to give the rocks the night off from worship.
The Implications of the Resurrection
Researching the life and claims of Jesus is totally different than that of doing the same research about another notable historical figure. For example, when you research the claims of Julius Caesar, if you were to come to the belief that the claims he made during his life were to be true, it might be a cool thing, but it wouldn’t and shouldn’t change the way you live your life. With Jesus, this is not so.
If Jesus truly rose from the dead, it validates his claim to divinity along with all other claims He made. If Jesus truly rose from the dead, the miracle of His resurrection has to make us take His claims seriously. If Jesus truly rose from the dead then our lives must become devoted to Him. This is part of the reason we see so much opposition to the claims of Jesus. It’s not that there isn’t great evidence to support His claims, but rather that many people realize that if Jesus really rose from the dead and the claims He made are true, then they would have to change the way the live. The changes they might have to make would be difficult and uncomfortable. It’s far easier to claim ignorance or even to claim disbelief in the evidence for and outcome of the resurrection. You know what you’ve read in this chapter. You know how you feel about the evidence for the resurrection. If you’re still unsure, continue to seek out resources on evidence for/against the resurrection, and more importantly, pray that God would reveal Himself to you in your searching. No matter where you’re at, understand that the implications for whether you believe or disbelieve in the resurrection of Jesus Christ will alter your views and existence for eternity.
Christ’s resurrection means everything. The evidence points to it. For many, the only hold up comes not from the head, but the heart. The universe and our souls long for a savior. Jesus was that savior. We long to feel loved and meaningful. Jesus thought you to be so valuable that He died to save you. Jesus turned a vulgar, Roman symbol of death into a global symbol of life. If the resurrection is true, then we must believe Jesus’ claims during His ministry on Earth. If Jesus rose from the dead, then you and I have a way to avoid eternal damnation. If Jesus rose from the dead, that means He made away for us to enter into the perfect love once shared between God and humans in the Garden of Eden. If Jesus rose from the dead, that means He defeated the one thing that had previously never been conquered: death. Our calendar year is based on the life of Jesus. His huge impact on civilization didn’t come because He was a carpenter’s son. It came because He rose from the dead to save you and me. The man who does that is someone worth following. Jesus loves you and He died and rose again just for you. He’s waiting to share in a beautiful love with you. He is offering you a love more beautiful than any the universe has ever seen. All you have to do is take Him up on it.
“He is not here, but has risen.”- Luke 24:6
“And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”- Luke 24:38-39