Two thousand years ago, a Jewish carpenter left his home to become an itinerant preacher. He attracted crowds and followers with his teachings, and was reputed to have performed miracles. Many of the religious authorities of his day were threatened by his disregard for some of their laws and his claims about his relationship with God. The religious authorities had him arrested and turned him over to the civil authorities, who crucified him.
Today, some 2.4 billion people – one-third of the world’s population – revere this man as the Son of God. (1)
What can account for this?
The foundational belief of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. If he did, this is proof that he is our Lord and Savior as he claimed, and that we should worship him and adhere to his teachings.
Jesus must be one of three things, as C.S. Lewis put it. He is either the Lord, a liar, or a lunatic. And each of us has to decide which we think he is. (2)
What is the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead?
First, did his apostles actually believe he rose from the dead? Skeptics try to argue that belief in the Resurrection did not develop until well after Jesus’ death. But we know from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that belief in the Resurrection stretches back to the very beginnings of the Christian faith. Jesus died around the year 33 AD. Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written between 53-56 AD, making it one of the earliest Christian writings (it almost certainly predates the Gospels). In it, Paul gives an account of the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus:
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures; that he appeared to Kephas [Peter], then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
Most scholars believe that Paul’s words in these verses represent a very early Christian creed that dates from one to five years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. How do we know this? Gary R. Habermas, who has a doctorate from Michigan State and doctor of divinity degree from Emmanuel College, summarizes the reasons for believing this is a creed:
- The phrases “handed on” and “received” are technical terms used by rabbis to indicate that what follows is holy tradition. Paul likely confirmed the accuracy of the creed when he met with Peter and James three years after his conversion, as he recounts in Galatians 1:18-20.
- The “parallelism and stylized content” of the text are typical of a creed.
- Elements of the creed are “similar to Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew means of narration.” Kephas likewise is Peter’s name in Aramaic. Paul wrote his epistles in Greek mainly to Greek audiences, but the native language of Jesus and his disciples was Aramaic.
- “The creed uses several other phrases that Paul would not customarily use, like ‘the Twelve,’ ‘the third day,’ ‘he was raised,’ and others.” (3)
We know then, that from the very beginnings of Christianity, the followers of Jesus believed in his bodily resurrection. The notion advanced by some skeptics that belief in the bodily resurrection did not develop until one or more generations after Christ’s death is demonstrably false.
We can also state with confidence that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Almost immediately after Jesus’ death (50 days, according to the Acts of the Apostles), his apostles publicly proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead and began baptizing converts in his name. It would have been very simple for their opponents to produce Jesus’ body and put an end to all argument, were the body still in the tomb. Common sense tells us the tomb was empty.
Are the apostles reliable witnesses? We know that the apostles and disciples of Jesus risked their lives by proclaiming the Resurrection. Acts of the Apostles tells us that both Stephen and James were martyred in the earliest days of the Church. (Stephen was martyred at the very beginning, prior to Saul’s journey to Damascus, while James was killed by Herod Agrippa, who ruled from 41-44 AD. See chapters 7 and 12 of Acts.) Beyond this, since Jesus was crucified for claiming to be God’s son, the apostles were knowingly putting their lives at risk by making the same claim. That they did this boldly and publicly, and in sharp contrast to their behavior when Jesus was arrested, strongly vouches for the claim that they had seen the Risen Lord, that they had absolute proof that he was the Son of God, and that they did not fear death because they knew the reward that awaited.
The risk (frankly, the reality) of persecution and martyrdom faced by the apostles rules out the possibility that they stole Jesus body from the tomb to perpetuate a great hoax. The apostles had everything to lose, and nothing (on this earth) to gain, by proclaiming the Resurrection. (4)
Were the apostles hallucinating that they saw Jesus? This argument is put forth by skeptics, and is easily refuted. Gary Collins, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Purdue and has written more than 40 books on psychology, puts it succinctly: “Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time.” (5) Yet Jesus appeared to multiple people (five hundred people, according to the earliest Christian creed) on multiple occasions during the forty day period between the Resurrection and Ascension (not to mention his appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus). These were not hallucinations. (6)
We know with certainty – as much certainty as any fair-minded historian could ask for – that Jesus’ tomb was empty, and that his apostles believed in his Resurrection, preached his Resurrection, and were willing to be tortured and killed rather than stop their preaching, from the very beginnings of Christianity. To paraphrase John the Evangelist, this is not all of the evidence for the Resurrection, not even close. But I share this evidence because I find it to be the most compelling, that if you are a believer your faith may be strengthened, and if you are not, that you might ponder these matters, investigate them further, and ultimately come to believe the wonderful Truth, that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead, so that you might have eternal life with him.
For further reading:
There is a vast literature on Christian apologetics and proof of the Resurrection. Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ is an excellent starting point. It will provide greater detail on the arguments above, while also covering other topics such as the reliability of the Gospels.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Macmillan-Collier, 1960), 55-56.
- Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 248-252. A by no means exhaustive list of scholars who believe 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is a very early creed includes Craig Blomberg, Hans von Campenhausen, William Lane Craig, James D.G. Dunn, Michael Goulder, Donald Hagner, Pinchas Lapide, Gerd Lüdemann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg.
- Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Easter: Myth, Hallucination, or History?” Christianity Today, March 15, 1974 and March 29, 1974. Dr. Yamauchi refutes various arguments of skeptics regarding the Resurrection.
- Strobel, The Case for Christ, 230.
- Moreover, as C.S. Lewis noted, “any theory of hallucination breaks down on the fact that on three separate occasions this hallucination was not immediately recognized as Jesus.” C.S. Lewis, Miracles (London & Glasgow: Collins/Fontana, 1947. Revised 1960. Cited by Yamauchi in “Easter: Myth, Hallucination, or History?”