The Historicity of the Resurrection

A common misconception is that one enters Christianity by the door of faith. That is a quite reasonable assumption, and if Christiainity were like other religions, it would be accurate. However, Christianity is not like other religions. It is extremely different in many ways, but the first major difference is that Christiainity does not begin with faith. It begins with a historical event: The resurrection of Jesus from the grave. In this essay I would like to help you consider this historical event so that you might properly evaluate Christianity itself, and, I sincerely hope, accept its Truth: Jesus Christ.

Allow me to begin by pointing out that none of this material is unique to me. There are many individuals who have done a lot of work researching it, ordering it, and propagating it; and to them I owe a great debt. Among those people are N.T. Wright, William Lane Craig, and C.S. Lewis, and the many, many sources that they cite as well. So, while I do not pretend to offer any novel insight into this millennia-old subject, what I do attempt is to present a summarized presentation of the most relevant information and conclusions. Much in the same spirit as what the Apostle Paul wrote in his great treatise on the resurrection:

Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.

1 Corinthians 15:1-8

So, likewise, the following is what I have received, and I hope it will be received by you as well. 

Christianity is founded on the historical event of the resurrection and not on our faith in the doctrine of the resurrection, because for faith to be real it must be grounded in reality. Faith that is directed toward something that is not real, is not faith at all; it is superstition. Therefore, if Jesus did not resurrect, physically, bodily, historically, just as the Bible testifies, then according to the Biblical authors themselves the Christian faith is empty and useless. 

If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: and if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

1 Corinthians 15.14-19

It is very important that we understand that the Bible does not allow for some other form of the resurrection. Either Jesus resurrected physically or not at all. It is not uncommon for people of faith to say that they believe that Jesus did resurrect, in spirit. By this they mean that he becomes alive in the hearts, minds, and lives of those who believe in him. But not that he actually walked out of the tomb in his physical body. For them this probably seems like a reasonable way to reconcile faith and science. Because science is often seen as opposing the historicity of the resurrection. We will examine if that is the case in a moment, but first, we must dispel any notion that such a compromise is possible. It is not. Either Jesus resurrected and we have something to believe in, or he did not actually resurrect and any faith of him living in our hearts, minds, or lives — or even in Heaven — is a superstition and the Christian faith is empty lies. Not only does the Christian doctrine require a physical resurrection, but Jesus himself insisted on it being acknowledged as such. When he appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, he went to great lengths to make it very clear that he was not a phantom or a ghost or an apparition. He commanded them to grab his hands, to feel his body. He walked down dusty roads with them, sat at tables, and ate food with them. And when he introduces himself, it is often making mention of the scars on his body from the crucifixion, which makes no sense if he is merely a spirit.

And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

Luke 24.30, 31

Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

John 20.27

Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him.

Revelation 1.7

But doesn’t science prove that resurrection is impossible? The short answer is no. Science claims that something is impossible (actually the term used is ‘extremely unlikely’) when it seems to violate the laws of nature or when it cannot be reproduced. However, science doesn’t understand death or life. Not even a little bit, actually. Science has no idea how life began, and they don’t know what death is exactly or why it happens. Humorously, a common scientific definition of death is “the permanent, irreversible cessation of all biological functions that sustain living organisms.” It is humorous because it is circular. Death, by definition, is a state from which one cannot resurrect. Because if that person did resurrect, it is because they were not really dead. They were, as Miracle Max famously explained, “only mostly dead.” It is also humorous because there are entire fields of scientific study devoted to trying to figure out how to overcome death, and make people live forever. Billions of dollars are being spent on this quest. Very wealthy people have their brains and bodies placed in frozen storage when they die, so that they can be ‘resurrected’ whenever science finally cracks the code of death and life. So, as I said, the answer is no. Science doesn’t actually rule out the possibility of coming back to life, their circular definitions notwithstanding. And when they say that it violates the laws of nature, that really only means that it doesn’t conform to the current scientific model. Just as heavier-than-air flight, meteorites falling from space, splitting the atom, and warm superconductors were once all contrary to the then current standard models. 

And as far as saying it cannot be reproduced, therefore it never happened: There are many events that cannot be reproduced. That does not prove they didn’t happen. In fact, historians will tell you that history is a science of studying events that can no longer be reproduced. Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Attila traversing the Alps, and Washington crossing the Delaware are all examples of something that can’t happen again. Others might or might not be able to do those things, but those historical people cannot. That doesn’t mean that it never happened. History by definition is something that cannot happen again. And this goes both ways. Just because you can cross the Delaware in a rowboat doesn’t mean that Washington did. So proving that something is possible today or supposedly impossible today does not prove that something did or didn’t happen yesterday.

The only tool we have to analyze the resurrection as an event is the historicity of it. That means studying the historical evidence of the event. This is why it simply is not a serious position to dismiss the resurrection out of hand. There is too much evidence. It is possible that all of that evidence is fabricated. It is possible that the resurrection is just another historical myth. But it is an undeniable feature of history, and must be confronted as such. In other words, just because something is a myth, does not mean that it is not ‘historical’, and to properly disprove a historical myth, we must examine the historical evidence. There is a great deal of historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. In comparison to other events of equal antiquity, there is an astounding amount of evidence for the resurrection. To put the evidence of the resurrection into perspective, there is more evidence for the resurrection than for Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride, or Benjamin Franklin’s well-known lightning storm and kite experiment, or Martin Luther’s revolutionary act of nailing the 95 thesis on the church door. And these are all ‘modern’ events. If we look at the events in the lives of Jesus’ contemporaries, we will find that a great many of them have very little historical evidence. 

The evidence for the resurrection can be categorized under a few main headers:

  1. The empty grave, seen and testified by many witnesses.
  2. The many post resurrection appearances of Jesus to many of his disciples.
  3. The unique doctrine of the resurrection taught by many of the apostles.

The operative word in all of these is “many”. There were many witnesses, there were many appearances, and there many different people teaching a single, consistent doctrine of the resurrection. 

The empty grave, as seen by many witnesses.

The empty grave is powerful evidence for the resurrection. Historically, it is almost impossible to deny. It was seen by many people the same morning of the resurrection and it was recorded in some of the oldest documents we have of that era. Not only are the documents that record the resurrection old, but they were written within 60 years of the event. To put that in perspective, consider that the oldest documents we have of Caesar’s Gallic wars are 900 years after the events they record. While it is understandable to think of these resurrection documents as a single source, that is to say the New Testament, they are not. The books of the New Testament, in this case the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, are separate books, written and published independently of each other and only much later bound together in a single volume. Much in the same way the historical evidence for your life (birth certificate, vaccination record, diploma, marriage certificate, etc) might be gathered up and kept in a single folder; that doesn’t mean that now there is only one record of your life. 

One interesting feature of the witnesses of the empty tomb is that the first, and therefore most important, witnesses were all women. This is significant for several reasons. In that part of the world, in that time of history, the testimony of a woman was practically valueless. Except for only a couple of exceptions, the testimony of a woman was legally inadmissible. So if the goal was to fabricate a myth of an empty tomb, why did the disciples choose the worst possible witnesses to make the ‘discovery’? And why didn’t they change the story in the years before they wrote it down? The testimony of a woman was no more acceptable when the New Testament was written than when the women first reported the empty tomb. Also significant was that women had the least to gain from the discovery. Christianity is not a matriarchal religion, there was no place of prominence in its leadership for these women. And years later when the New Testament was written, there was no motivation to not replace them with the actual leaders of the Church. So without motive or means, why does the historical evidence name these women as the first witness of the empty tomb? There is only one logical answer: They were the first witnesses of a real empty tomb. 

The argument that those women got confused and went to the wrong tomb, or that they moved the body and staged the scene is foolish. There were many powerful men very motivated to debunk the story of the resurrection. If they could have dismissed the story as being the unreliable testimony of some silly women, that would have been the end of it. And does anyone really think that several hundred men of 1st Century Palestine would have gone to their death along with their wives and children, duped by some fabrication that benefited none of them nor any of the women that allegedly perpetuated it? And moving the body requires more than just means and motive (which they didn’t have), it also requires quite a bit of opportunity, which they also didn’t have. Israel was heavily patrolled, the Sanhedran had commissioned  a guard, and the male disciples visited the tomb early in the morning as well. And if they did move the body, where did they move it to? How was it not found in short order? The disciples document that there was a feeble attempt to gin up such a rumor, but it never got any traction, because they could never produce a body. 

These, along with many other pieces of evidence have convinced even some agnostic scholars to conclude that regardless of what implications might or might not be inferred, it is an indisputable historical fact that there was indeed an empty tomb. And all attempts to explain that empty tomb by some cause other than the bodily resurrection of Jesus have failed. The resurrection remains the best explanation. 

The many post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

The second category of evidence that we find in the historical record is that many witnesses claimed to have seen Jesus after his resurrection. This is documented in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul. The people who claimed to have encountered Jesus are named and many of them were interviewed (to put it nicely) by the authorities. Most of them were unintentional and unwitting witnesses. That is to say, they were not looking for a resurrected Jesus. When they were told by others that Jesus had resurrected, none of them initially believed it. This is most famously illustrated by Thomas and Paul’s extreme examples, however, the other disciples were also dubious of the claims. Perhaps the most sceptical of all the witnesses was Jesus’ brother, James who before his post-resurrection encounter with Jesus was not even a follower of Jesus. Yet all of these sceptical people professed to have met a resurrected Jesus, in the flesh, and all of them maintained their testimony throughout their life. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that there were over 500 of these witnesses, and that many remained alive at the time he wrote that epistle. 

These witnesses have some of the same earmarks as those of the empty tomb. There was no motivation to be in on the scheme. Christianity was not a lucrative enterprise. It was a persecuted, defamed sect of Judaism. It was despised by the Jews and seen with contempt by the Gentiles. And a primary cause for this disdain was the resurrection. In Acts 5 the Apostles were first incarcerated by the Jews for preaching the resurrection, and in Acts 17 the Greeks listened attentively to Paul, until he mentioned the resurrection. For both Jews and Gentiles, the idea of the resurrection was a non-starter. In 1 Corinthians we find that even members in the Church had difficulty accepting the resurrection. Therefore, being one of the witnesses of this event was not something you would make up to pad your resume. For many of them it was a real burden that caused them quite a bit of trouble; trouble they could have avoided by simply ‘seeing nothing, hearing nothing’. 

Since there are too many consistent historical testimonies of seeing Jesus resurrected to be simply fabricated, then we have to deal with these testimonies as historical facts. That doesn’t necessarily mean that what they testified was true or that they saw what they thought they did, only that they did in fact testify to seeing Jesus. But if these witnesses did not actually see a resurrected Jesus, then what did they see? What could convince so many people, with intimate knowledge of Jesus, with every good reason to dismiss as a vision or apparition rather than that they had in fact come face to face with the resurrected body of their Teacher? A typical religious alternative explanation is that they saw (or thought they saw) a spirit. However, that explanation ignores several obvious facts. First, Jews were not adverse to seeing spirits. The disciples thought they saw the ghost of Jesus before, when he walked to them on water. And seeing the ghost of the deceased was not unheard of. But they all knew the difference between seeing a ghost and seeing a real, living, physical person. It would have simplified everyone’s life significantly if they had just said that what they saw was the ghost of Jesus. Even the pagans accepted that possibility. Second, the ghost explanation overlooks the undeniable implication, both Jewish and Pagan: If someone saw a ghost of a dead person, the conclusion was not to go around saying the dead person was actually alive. Rather exactly the opposite. If you saw the ghost of your dead father, that only confirmed that he was in fact dead. When King Saul saw the spirit of Samuel, his conclusion was not “Samuel Lives!” So telling Jews, or Gentiles, that they had seen the spirit of Jesus would have been curious but not startling, and would have confirmed the crucifixion story, but done nothing to explain the empty tomb nor had given rise to preaching a living Christ. 

An alternative, non-religious explanation is mass hysteria and hallucination; all these witnesses experienced a hallucination caused by a spiritual ecstasy and sincerely, albeit mistakenly, thought they had seen a resurrected Jesus. There are all kinds of difficulties with this theory. Many experts who research mass hysteria find that such a phenomenon is ‘extremely unlikely’. But besides the unlikelihood of a mass hallucination spanning across so many unconnected people in time and geography, there is a more fundamental problem: What about the empty grave? Hysteria doesn’t explain that at all. Another problem: What gave rise to this hallucination? Where did the idea of a resurrected Jesus come from? What deep psychological influence erupted in hundreds of people, manifesting itself in the same hysteria driven hallucination? It wasn’t from Judaism. There is no clear doctrine of such a resurrection in Jewish doctrine. Jews mostly believed in an afterlife and some form of resurrection on the last day at the final judgment. This is seen in Mary’s response to Jesus when he affirmed that Lazarus would rise again.

Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.

John 11.23-24

The Messianic prophecies, at least as interpreted by Israel, did not prescribe a resurrection, and the Messiah was not necessarily immortal. In fact, the divinity of Christ has nothing to do with him being the Messiah. Many Jewish sects, both before and after Christ, have believed to have found the Messiah. And the death of those alleged Messiahs did not cause them a crisis of faith, much less a hallucination of a resurrection.  So where did so many people get the notion that resurrection was a viable notion? It didn’t even exist in paganism. As we observed above, when Paul preached the resurrection to the most superstitious of all Gentiles, they scoffed at the very notion. And what about the body? If they hallucinated a physical resurrection of Jesus, wouldn’t simply producing a body undo the delusion? 

One final problem with the hallucination theory: The apparent trigger of such a hallucination would be a psychological obsession to not accept defeat; to not face up to having been wrong. But the resurrection was nothing less than them being wrong. When Jesus died, all their hopes and dreams died with him. They were expecting him to set up a kingdom, conquer their enemies, and lead the nation to victory. Judas Iscariot traded on that assumption. He calculated that Jesus would simply walk through the soldiers like he had done before, and he could make some money at the same time. But when he saw that was not going to happen, and Jesus was put to death, he was so distraught that he killed himself. And the resurrection doesn’t fix that. The resurrection did not rewind history. The evidence of their mistaken beliefs was pierced through his hand, through his side, through his brow. When the apostles preached the resurrection, they were not saying, “See, we were right all along.” They were saying the exact opposite. “We were completely wrong. We didn’t understand anything. Nothing is as we expected. God did something that is marvelous (unbelievable, staggering, stunning) in our eyes.” There have been many religious sects who have faced the cognitive dissonance caused by failed prophecies, they all respond by spiritualizing the fulfillment of the prophecy to avoid accepting they were wrong. The disciples did not do that. They accepted a fact that only confirmed their error and ignorance. Rather than double-down on their delusion, they faced reality. A hallucination theory just doesn’t fit.

The best explanation for the many witnesses who testified of seeing an unexpected resurrected Jesus is the simplest explanation: He did resurrect, and he did appear to them. I once watched a debate between an atheist and a Christian apologist on the resurrection. In the course of the debate, the Christian asked his opponent what evidence he would accept as sufficient to acknowledge the resurrection. The atheist’s response was that if Jesus had appeared to every single person upon the face of the entire earth, then maybe he would accept that as sufficient evidence. This response is not a scientific response, nor a historian’s response. It is essentially a statement of faith. But what is most curious is that even after setting the bar unreasonably high, higher than what anyone demands to authenticate any historical event, even then he had to qualify it with a “maybe”. What are they so afraid of? Are they afraid that if Jesus did resurrect and did appear to over 500, that he might appear and every eye might see him?

The unique doctrine of the resurrection taught by many apostles.

One of the oddities of the resurrection of Jesus is how disrupting it was. Considering the various resurrections that had been performed by Jesus and by the Old Testament prophets, one would think that it should have been more expected and less mindblowing. Elijah raised a widow’s son. Elisha raised the Shunammite woman’s son. A dead man was cast into Elisha’s grave and when he made contact with Elisha’s bones, he came back to life. Jesus raised the only son of a widow from Nain. Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter. Jesus raised Lazarus after being dead for more than 3 days. When Jesus died on the cross, many saints raised from the dead and were seen in Jerusalem. Peter raised Tabitha. Eutychus was raised by Paul after he fell out of the window. Add to that a nearly universal belief in some sort of resurrection from the dead at the end of the world, and it would seem that one more resurrection would not have been that big of a deal. However, the resurrection of Jesus was fundamentally different then any of these other people being raised from the dead. Even if we can’t explain why it was different, it is obvious that it was.

If whatever happened to all of those people was of the same category as the resurrection of Jesus, then where were the worshipers of Lazarus? Where is the Church of Jairus? Where are the people declaring the Son of Nain to be the Son of God? When Lazarus was raised from the dead, the response of the people was to follow Jesus, not Lazarus; and the comical response of the religious leaders was to hatch a Groundhog Day plot of killing Lazarus… again. There isn’t a single suggestion that any of these ‘resurrections’ were anything more than stunning miracles. And except in the case of Lazarus, who was dead for more than three days, they don’t seem to have been seen as fundamentally different then any other miracle. Greater than the other miracles, yes, but not different. But when Jesus resurrects from the dead, everything changes. The resurrection didn’t formalize the disciple’s opinion of Jesus, it radically transformed it. They went from accepting that he was the Messiah to whole-heartedly believing he was both Lord and God. 

And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

John 20.28

The resurrection of Jesus was viewed as so special that the entire framework of Christianity was structured on it… or rather, it was special because the entire framework was predicated on it. When Paul summarizes the entire gospel message in a single sentence, it is: 

If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

Romans 10.9

And when the Apostles taught of the new birth and the power of that new creation it was all contingent on the resurrection of Jesus. He was the firstborn of many brothers; the firstfruits of a great harvest. The power of salvation didn’t come from the resurrection or simply compare to the resurrection. The power of salvation is the resurrection.

that ye may know … what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead.

Ephesians 1.19-20

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

1 Peter 1.3

The resurrection of Jesus was different on several levels. The obvious difference is that all the others had been raised from the dead to the same type of life. Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, the son from Nain, and all the others simply lived out their normal life and then died as they normally would have. There was no difference between any of them and any one who has been pronounced clinically dead and come back to life. They didn’t come back with any new knowledge, special revelation, or supernatural power. Whatever limitations they died with, they revived with. 

That was obviously not the case with Jesus. He resurrected with his physical body, still bearing the marks of his torturous death. And at the same time he was fundamentally different. So much that he was unrecognizable at the same time he was the same. Paul explains it in this way:

Though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.

2 Corinthians 5.16

The resurrected Christ was now visibly the manifestation of the complexity of the Godhead. Completely unrecognizable and at the same time completely recognizable. Think of a hologram: When viewed from one angle you have the majestic King of Kings, vesture dipped in blood, shining brighter than the sun, and higher than the heavens; yet at the same time from a different angle, the Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief. 
All of this means that every person must confront the historical claim of the resurrection. Each of us will do this in one of several ways: Or we will dismiss it out of hand, giving no serious consideration to the claim or the evidence; or we will accept it as a religious tenet, the price of admission into our particular religious culture, also out of hand, giving no serious consideration to the claim or the evidence; or we will sceptically hold it at arm’s length while we seriously weigh the claim and evaluate all the evidence. The first two approaches are the same disbelief, they are just bottled and branded as competitors. Accepting the resurrection without troubling yourself to examine the evidence is as dismissive of Christ and dismissing it without discomforting yourself by giving the evidence a fair hearing. The resurrection is not something you squeeze into your worldview or adapt to your religious predilections. You either reject Jesus altogether or you submit to Jesus absolutely. For this reason, the unavoidable consequence of believing with your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead is a similar response as that of Thomas: Oh my lord… Oh my god… O, my Lord! My God!

M. N. Jackson is a founding elder and teaching pastor of Free Born Church. He was a missionary in Mexico for over 20 years where he was part of a team of church planters. After being deported from Mexico for preaching the gospel, he returned to San Antonio, and continued ministering the word.

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