Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?
For the past several weeks leading up to Easter, we have been examining possible natural theories of the Resurrection. We have found them all wanting. If we are going to believe in the Resurrection and present it as true, we will need more than negative arguments against other theories. Is there any positive evidence for the Resurrection? Today, on Easter Sunday, we will make a positive case for the Resurrection.
Jesus Died by Crucifixion.
That Jesus died by crucifixion is one of the strongest attested facts surrounding the event. The historical data is overwhelming. All four Gospels record the events of his crucifixion, and I will quote three early historical sources here:
“When Pilate, upon hearing him [Jesus] accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified” (Josephus, Jewish Historian).
“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 Pilate.” (Tacitus, Roman Historian)
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.” (Lucian of Samosata, Greek Satirist)
The Disciples Believed/Claimed Jesus Rose From the Dead.
“You only know this because the Bible says so. I don’t believe in the Bible.” This argument will not do, for I don’t need to believe that the Bible is God’s word (though I do) in order to make the case that the disciples claimed Jesus rose from the dead. Many critics who don’t believe in the inspiration of Scripture conclude that the disciples claimed Jesus rose from the dead. Consider the following passage in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, where Paul writes,
“For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the Twelve. That he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me.” (parenthesis mine)
Almost all scholars agree that this passage contains an early oral creed that dates back to just a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Mike Licona, in The Case For the Resurrection of Jesus, says, “In fact, many critical scholars hold that Paul received it from the disciples Peter and James while visiting them in Jerusalem three years after his conversion. If so, Paul learned it within five years of the crucifixion and from the disciples themselves.” What this means is that even critical scholars, who don’t believe the Bible to be God’s word, conclude that within just a few years of the crucifixion, the disciples believed, and were teaching, that Jesus rose from the dead.
We also have the writings of Clement (c.30 – c.100) and Polycarp (c.69 – c.155). Both were students of the disciples, and both confirm that the disciples were teaching the Resurrection of Jesus very early. These early writings, and others, also describe the transformation the disciples under went after coming to the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead. They detail how the disciples suffered for their faith. Both Clement and Polycarp specifically detail the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. That the disciples willingly suffered for teaching the Resurrection at least shows that they believed it to be true. It doesn’t make it true, but it does mean that they believed it. In the same work mentioned above, Gary Habermas writes,
“On the state of the Resurrection studies today, I recently completed an overview of more than 1,400 sources on the Resurrection of Jesus since 1975. I studied and catalogued about 650 of these texts in English, German, and French. Some of the results of this study are certainly intriguing. For example, perhaps no fact is more widely recognized than that early Christian believers had real experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus. A critic may claim that what they saw were hallucinations or visions, but he does not deny that they actually experienced something.” (Habermas, Gary. The Case For the Resurrection of Jesus.)
Thus far, we can conclude with much historical witness that Jesus died of crucifixion and the disciples believed he rose from the dead.
The Conversion of Enemies
As the book of Acts in the New Testament details, Saul of Tarsus was a staunch enemy of the early Christian church. But in a radical moment, he suddenly converted to be a Christian himself. What makes Paul different from any other converter to a belief system that one was previously opposed to is that (1) He claimed to experience the risen Jesus and (2) He knew it would cost him his life to convert. Who does such a thing? Why would they do so?
The same can be said of the brother of Jesus, James. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, James did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. He did not convert until after Jesus’ death when James claimed that he too had experienced the risen Jesus. Just like Paul, James had nothing to gain, but everything to lose by converting. He would eventually meet the same fate as the disciples – martyrdom.
The Empty Tomb
The empty tomb isn’t believed by all scholars. However, Habermas estimates that 75% of scholars accept the empty tomb as a historical fact.
One good reason to believe the tomb was found empty is that if Jesus’ body were in there the whole time, why didn’t the Jewish, or Roman leaders present the body in an effort to squander the spreading Christian teaching of the Resurrection. The disciples began teaching the Resurrection about 50 days after the crucifixion, according to Acts. If Jesus’ body were still in the tomb, it still would have been recognizable. Producing the body would’ve stopped anyone from converting, especially skeptics and enemies like Paul and James.
Enemies of the early Christian church indirectly admit that the tomb was empty. The Jewish leaders proposed that the disciples had stolen the body. This inadvertently admits that the tomb was empty. If his body was still there, the disciples couldn’t have stolen it. We can imagine that the disciples might make up a story about an empty tomb, but why would the Jewish leaders?
If the disciples had made up a story of an empty tomb, it wouldn’t make much sense in the first century to have a group of women be the discoverers of this tomb. A woman’s testimony in the first century was not seen as credible, or at least not as credible as a man’s. So, if you were going to a make up a story you probably wouldn’t have a group of women as the primary witnesses. This, and other “embarrassing details” are littered throughout the Gospel narratives. One simply doesn’t do this if one is making up a story. When someone lies, they don’t make up details that discredit their testimony, and they definitely don’t make-up embarrassing details about themselves.
The previous argument for the Resurrection is called the “Minimal Facts” by Gary Habermas in his book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (link below). The facts presented are held by nearly all scholars whether believers, or skeptics. It does not require that one believe the Bible to be God’s word (again, though I do).
Any of the facts taken in-and-of-themselves are not sufficient evidence that the Resurrection actually happened. But all of them taken together, and the fact that no natural explanation has reasonably been substantiated, means that the Resurrection is the best explanation of the evidence. We are not claiming to know this with certainty. We are claiming that this is a very reasonable belief that is substantiated by a lot of historical data, and human reasoning.
If one rules out the miraculous a priori, they will never conclude that Jesus rose from the dead – no matter how much evidence is provided. However, if one approaches the Resurrection willing to follow the facts wherever they lead, I’m confident that they will reach the same conclusion that so many others have: He is risen!
Happy Easter everyone!