How do we know Jesus rose from the dead? We discussed this question today at Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta as part of our Easter celebration. How would you answer it?
The resurrection is the basis for our Christian hope. Paul said that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then we won’t, either, and that if we have no hope of being raised at Christ’s return, then our “faith is futile” and “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17-19).
I believe Jesus’ resurrection is also the foundational reason for trusting that the Bible is what it claims to be—words from God. If Jesus rose from the dead, then he is who he claimed to be—the Christ sent from God. And if that is indeed who he is, then what he believed about the Scriptures must be true.
But this raises a bit of a logical problem, right? If we are not careful, we end up with a circular argument:
- We know that Jesus rose from the dead because the Bible says so.
- We know that the Bible is true because Jesus rose from the dead.
If this were indeed the basis for Christian faith, then we should rightly be scoffed by any reasonable thinker.
But that is not the true nature of Christian faith. While faith reaches beyond the evidence, it is always, if you dig deep enough, rooted in and in line with historically and empirically verifiable evidence. The apostles didn’t go around saying “just believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” They didn’t even simply say “believe that Jesus rose from the dead because the Bible (the Jewish Scriptures) said he would,” though that was true and they did indeed say so. But they did more: they said “we are are eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, and here is what we saw, heard, and touched.”
So that is a good place for anyone with doubts to begin with Scripture: simply treat it as ordinary, valid evidence to be considered in your personal court of law. That is where I begin with my list below. When the Bible receives this fair but ordinary reception, it can be used by the Holy Spirit to lead a person to saving faith in the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
All that is prelude to the following nine points that we discussed this morning. This is not a scholarly defense of Jesus’ resurrection. It is simply a series of points that I wrote to summarize some key facts that can bolster our faith that Jesus really did rise from the dead. There are no footnotes. You can find these same points and many more in much greater detail in books by authors such as Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, Jonathan Morrow, William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, Gary Habermas, and many more.
HOW CAN WE KNOW
JESUS ROSE FROM THE DEAD?
- The New Testament writings, which claim that Jesus rose, are basically trustworthy historical documents. Historical evidence shows that it takes more than two generations for legends to develop and wipe out the truth about historical figures, and that matches when the later fake “gospels” about Jesus began to be written. But the New Testament was written down within the lifetime of the events it describes. We have more ancient hand-written copies of the New Testament than of any other ancient writing, and these copies are dated closer to the time of their authors than with other ancient writings. There are also references to Jesus in ancient writings outside the Bible and no ancient claims that he never existed. If you believe the historical accounts about people such as the Roman emperor Augustus or events such as the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, as all historians do, then you have every reason to also believe that the New Testament writings, which claim that Jesus rose, are basically trustworthy historical documents.
- The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection have the ring of eye-witness testimony. Each of the Gospels tell the same story of the resurrection, with the same core events and characters. But they each tell the story differently, with different details mentioned in ways that make it look at first as if there is some conflict between their accounts. This shows that the writers were not merely reciting some agreed-upon fake story. Rather, they were each telling about the same historical event in their own way. The core story in each Gospel matches, and the apparently conflicting details have been harmonized by careful Bible students. The Gospel accounts of the resurrection have the ring of eye-witness testimony.
- Jesus did actually die. First he suffered a brutal lashing using a whip of braided leather with metal balls woven into it. According to the third-century historian Eusebius, “The sufferer’s veins were laid bare, and the very muscles, sinews, and bowels of the victim were open to exposure.” Many people died during such Roman lashings. Then Jesus was nailed to a cross. Crucifixion caused its victims to die of asphyxiation (loss of oxygen) as the victim lost strength to push themselves into a vertical position to breath. Loss of oxygen then led to an irregular heartbeat and death. If a Roman soldier let a prisoner escape, the responsible soldier would be put to death themselves, so they made sure every victim was dead before they were removed from a cross. Jesus did actually die.
- Jesus’ body was actually placed in a tomb. All four Gospels say a Jewish leader named Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in his own tomb. Joseph was a member of the council that had voted to kill Jesus. If Jesus’ followers wanted to invent a burial story, why would they invent such a specific story, which people could then check out and prove false? The very earliest Christian creeds, like in 1 Corinthians 15, mention that Jesus was buried. In ancient writings there are no other competing traditions about Jesus’ burial besides the ones found in the Gospels. Jesus’ body was actually placed in a tomb.
- The tomb was actually empty several days after Jesus’ burial. According to the Gospels, the first witnesses to the empty tomb were women. But women’s testimony was regarded as so worthless in the ancient world that they weren’t allowed to serve as legal witnesses under Jewish law. In that case, why would the early Christians invent such an embarrassing story about women witnesses if it wasn’t actually true? Besides, the site of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was known to Jesus’ enemies, so if the body was still there, they could have shown so. But neither Roman authorities nor the Jewish leaders ever claimed that the body was still in the tomb. Instead, they invented stories to try to hide the fact that the tomb was actually empty several days after Jesus’ burial.
- Nobody stole Jesus’ body. This is what the Jewish leaders feared Jesus’ followers would do, so they arranged with the Roman governor to have the stone covering of the tomb sealed and for a group of soldiers to guard the tomb. After Jesus’ body disappeared, the Jews spread the story that the guards had fallen asleep and that Jesus’ followers had stolen the body. But Jesus’ followers were terrified; they had just watched Jesus die. They had no motive to steal his body and then die themselves for this lie. And Jesus’ enemies certainly didn’t steal his body. If they had, they would have displayed his body publicly in Jerusalem to prove that he was still dead. Nobody stole Jesus’ body.
- Jesus’ followers didn’t expect him to come back to life. In the New Testament accounts, everyone is surprised when they learn that Jesus is alive again. The women, who were first to witness the empty tomb, were there because they planned to anoint Jesus’ dead body, not because they expected a resurrection. When they saw the empty tomb, their first thought was that someone had stolen the body. At first the men didn’t believe the women’s claims that the tomb was empty. It was embarrassing for the Gospel writers to admit that the leaders of the church were so slow to believe Jesus’ prophecies about his own resurrection. But ancient people were even more familiar with death than most of us are, and they knew as well as we do that people don’t normally come back to life after they die—certainly not without dying again later. Jesus’ followers didn’t expect him to come back to life.
- Jesus was seen alive after his death. The Gospels, the book of Acts, and 1 Corinthians 15 all record multiple witnesses who saw Jesus after his resurrection. Within weeks of Jesus’ death his followers were publicly claiming that they had seen him alive, and these claims were written down during the lifetime of the witnesses so readers could investigate their claims. These witnesses were not hallucinating, because hallucinations don’t happen to groups, and there are records of groups ranging from 11 to 500 who saw Jesus at the same time. Within weeks of the crucifixion, thousands of Jews believed the witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. They started abandoning Jewish laws that they formerly believed they had to obey to avoid damnation. These appearances of Jesus were powerful enough to change Jesus’ half-brother James from a sceptic into one of the main leaders of the early church, and to change Paul from a violent persecutor of the church into one of its most courageous preachers. Those who knew best whether Jesus had actually risen or not went to their deaths claiming it was true. Not one of the inner circle of apostles ever recanted his claims of having seen the risen Jesus, even though most of them were martyred for their testimony. Jesus was seen alive after his death.
- Jesus continues to change lives today. The first followers of Jesus were changed from selfish, fearful followers or even enemies of Jesus into courageous, loving preachers of the resurrection. In the same way, throughout history to this day, millions of followers of Jesus testify that he has changed their lives. This matches what the first followers of Jesus claimed. They said that all who join Jesus receive the witness of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, and that this Spirit of God tells them that they are now God’s children. God’s Spirit within makes us feel the reality that Jesus is indeed alive and will return again. We show others Jesus rose by pointing to the historical evidence, and we know for ourselves that he rose not only because of that historical evidence but also because of the witness of the Spirit of Jesus within our hearts. Jesus continues to change lives today.
After examining the evidence, it still takes faith to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But in the face of such evidence, it would also take faith to believe that he didn’t. Coming up with viable alternative explanations for the evidence is not as easy as it might look at first. Many have tried and failed.
I am convinced that the best explanation for the evidence is the one that is also the best news you could imagine—“in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). When I don’t feel the truth of the Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus is a factual foundation that I come back to, a sure place to rest until I regain spiritual sight.
Again, this is not a scholarly defense of Jesus’ resurrection. So, if you are a skeptic, I invite you to look closer before you scoff.
But if you are a believer, I invite your response: How do you know Jesus rose from the dead? Share your favorite evidence in the comments below. Then live as if it really happened, because it did!