Did the Resurrection Really Happen?

That’s right, I am coming out swinging with these apologetics questions. While I do plan to get more into the nitty gritty as this blog goes on, I feel like I need to address the “greatest hits” first before I go any deeper. Within the next few weeks, I want to talk about prayer and how Christ demonstrated its importance, but none of that really means anything if he didn’t actually rise from the dead.

That is, after all, the linchpin of the Christian faith. Without the resurrection, Christ was simply the man that other major world religions accept him as – a wise, gifted spiritual leader who was taken before his time by an empire and a religious bureaucracy that saw him as a threat. The resurrection, then, is what decides the issue of Christ’s divinity. Resurrection does not happen naturally (as far as we have observed in nature), so if the resurrection of Christ happened, we can only infer that the cause was supernatural. The Gospels tell us that this supernatural explanation for the resurrection is the will of God, and the resurrection was fully understood and believed to be true by the absolute earliest Christians in the first years of the Church. There are historic events from around the time of Christ’s resurrection, such as the Battle of Teutoberg Forest or the follies of Caligula, that scholars unanimously agree actually occurred. Can we make the same kind of historical conclusions when it comes to Jesus?

In order to determine whether or not the resurrection is historical, it must be shown that our hypothesis (Jesus was actually raised from the dead) fits the extant data. To start, I think we should establish exactly what extant data we have – after all, two millennia have transpired since the events in question. Once we establish the data, let’s also discuss its reliability. The earliest writings we have on the resurrection:

  • The letters of Paul (the earliest of which were written around 50 AD, about 15 years after the death of Christ)
  • The Gospel of Mark (written around 70 AD)
  • The Gospel of Matthew (written around 85 AD)
  • The Gospel of Luke (written around 90 AD)
  • The Gospel of John (written around 110 AD)
  • Josephus’ Testimonium Flavianum (first century Jewish history that mentions Christ and Christianity, written circa 90 AD)

While we take the Gospels and the letters of Paul for granted due to the fact that they have been studied and discussed for so many centuries, their existence and the data they give us about Christ is truly a wonder. In fact, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ are the most well-attested historical events in the ancient world (in terms of quantity and contemporaneity of sources). We have four distinct biographies of Christ, the earliest of which was written about 35 years after his death and the latest of which was written about 80 years after his death. The biographies are similar in the broad strokes, but differ enough that scholars generally agree there was no collaboration between the writers. For reference, we have no contemporary writings on the life and death of Alexander the Great. In fact, most of what we know of his life comes from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, written nearly 500 years after the fact. This is the case for many of the historic events of the ancient world, which is why it is so incredible and unique for such strong, early documentation of Christ to have survived throughout the centuries.

This, of course, begs an important question: is it possible that the early Christian church doctored and tweaked these biographies of Jesus to include the resurrection and references to himself as God? In short, no. This presupposes two things – one, that there was any kind of centralized power structure in the early Christian church making these decisions, and two, that they would have been able to make sweeping scriptural changes. The earliest Christian manuscripts, such as the letters of Paul, were circulated around the Mediterranean quite rapidly in the decades following the death of Christ. Various churches would receive the manuscripts, copy them down, and send along the original to the next church. It would have been impossible for any kind of centralized Christian authority to track down these manuscripts and make changes, even if that authority had existed.

In the earliest of these manuscripts, we have explicit references to the resurrection. Paul’s letters were written while he was serving a term of house arrest in Rome, and have since been collected as the Epistles. They form an integral part of the New Testament, as Paul further details the precepts of Christian living and provides solutions for problems faced by early Christians. The letters were written to the new Christian churches that Paul had helped establish in the years after Christ’s death. We have letters to the churches in Corinth, in Rome, in Ephesus, etc. One of Paul’s first surviving letters was to the Corinthians. The letter is dated to 53 AD, twenty years after the death of Christ. In it, Paul writes:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, although some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NIV)

Notice something interesting about how Paul transfers this information in his letter. It is almost like he is writing it in bullet point format for easy memorization – Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, then he was buried, then he was raised, then he appeared. Modern scholars agree that Paul is actually quoting one of the earliest Christian creeds here, a statement of faith that was memorized and repeated by Christians as the movement spread. While we don’t have surviving records of these creeds, we can pretty easily pick them out from Paul’s writings as they generally don’t fit his usual style. 

We can conclude that the earliest Christians understood and believed in the resurrection as an integral part of their faith. Can we prove, however, that it actually happened? Let’s break down a few key facts to see if they provide the best explanation for the data.

The Empty Tomb

First, we must address the empty tomb. If the tomb was truly empty on the third day, it provides strong evidence that something happened to the body of Christ. In the book of Matthew, we learn that the Jewish elders in Jerusalem quickly formed a hypothesis upon hearing the news of the empty tomb:

“When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while were were asleep.”’ (Matthew 28:12-13 NIV)

This is an extremely important event if true. While the priests are saying that Christ’s body was stolen by his disciples, they are implicitly admitting that the tomb was empty. In this rendering, the empty tomb is an accepted fact that must then be addressed by the religious elite of Jerusalem. The explanation of the priests, that there was a covert plot by Christ’s disciples to whisk his body away under cover of dark, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Many of these disciples ended up being horribly mutilated and killed for their belief in the divinity of Christ. If they knew that the resurrection story was a lie, it is unlikely they would have suffered in the manner they did. To quote respected theologian Dr. Gary Habermas, “Liars make poor martyrs.”

This leaves us with the fact of the empty tomb and two possible explanations: Christ was truly raised from the dead, or his body was stolen by his disciples. Examining this data on its own, we would probably choose the latter. Perhaps the disciples stole his body, and then became so convinced of his divinity through their continual preaching that they started to believe it, even in death. If this was the only data we had, perhaps this tenuous explanation could be stretched to fit. However, along with the other pieces of the puzzle, it doesn’t quite hold up.

Preaching in Jerusalem

In the years following the death of Christ, the Christian church exploded throughout the ancient world, reaching as fair as Spain and West Africa. The epicenter of the Christian movement was Jerusalem, the city in which Christ was crucified and was purported to have risen again. As we see in Acts, the earliest Christians were preaching the resurrection in Jerusalem immediately after Christ’s death. The Jewish priestly elite in Jerusalem and abroad, as well as the Roman territorial leaders, saw the Christians as a threat to the existing peace and order – we can see this in first century writings from Pliny in Bithynia and Suetonius in Rome

Some contend that the story of Christ’s body being laid to rest in a tomb is inaccurate. As the victim of a state execution, he was likely thrown in a mass grave or left to rot on the cross as an example to others. This, of course, doesn’t account for his loyal followers and his sympathizers in the local government, but just for now we will take this perspective. As the earliest Christians are preaching in Jerusalem following the death of Christ, surely someone amongst the citizenry would have known where he was buried. He had caused an unmistakable hubbub in the city, and his execution was likely quite publicized. It would have been easy for the existing establishment to crush the first Christian believers with one simple fact: hey, his body is right here, right where we left it. However, not only do we have no record of this happening, Jerusalem proved to be the nexus of the early Christian movement.

The earliest Christians could not have preached the resurrection anywhere, especially in the very city where Christ was executed, without the empty tomb and the missing body being common knowledge.

No Other Contemporary Theories

We must remember that, as strong as the early Christian movement was, the opposition to it was just as strong. Any anti-Christian writings would have been widely circulated, especially if they had conclusive evidence that Christ did not actually rise from the dead. There is a theory that perhaps these documents did exist, but over the centuries the Church tracked them down and got rid of them to consolidate their power through claims of Christ’s divinity. As I mentioned previously, the spread of the Christian movement and the lack of centralization in its earliest days would have made this impossible. If strong, contemporary arguments against the resurrection existed, they would have been a center-point of Nero and the Romans’ continued persecutions of the early Christians. However, we have none. 

It is easy to look back from a modern perspective and say that perhaps the Romans and the contemporary Jewish establishment did not argue against the resurrection or the empty tomb because they viewed the very concept as ridiculous. This is supposing, however, that they also viewed the Christians themselves as ridiculous; after all, the resurrection was the foundation of the Christian faith. We have strong evidence that this was not the case, as recorded in Tacitus’ history of the early Roman Christian persecutions in Annals. When examining something from a historical perspective, we must try to put together the most complete and reasonable assumption from the existing data. We have a clear, multiply-attested historical record of what happened and no earlier writings that give an alternative story. An outright denial of the resurrection requires an earlier source.

Women as Eyewitnesses

All four Gospels state that the first to discover the empty tomb were women, followers of Christ who had come to pray and mourn at his burial site. This may seem irrelevant to the modern reader, but it is actually quite significant in the context of first century Jewish culture in Palestine. As we can see in the Torah and other early Jewish writings, Jewish culture was traditionally patriarchal. Women tend to be referenced mainly as childbearers and in relation to important men. In the book of Esther, women are expected to be completely submissive to their male counterparts, and any woman who denies the whims of a man is subject to exile. This perspective was carried over into the everyday life of the ancient Jewish people; in fact, a woman’s testimony in court was generally considered to be far less important than a man’s.

That is important – not only were women seen as second class citizens, their testimony was not to be trusted if a man gave a competing story. Yet, in all four Gospels, we have women as the first to observe the empty tomb. This fact would have been both embarrassing and undermining to the early Christian movement, especially due to the fact that the movement itself was so rooted in Jewish culture. It also demonstrates that Jesus’ male disciples that had so fervently followed him during his life had abandoned him at the first sign of trouble. Here these women were, bravely approaching the guarded tomb, while the men hid in seclusion. We even see this in the Gospels – Peter, the apostle that Jesus highlights as the leader of the twelve and the “rock upon who the Church is built,” denies that he even knows Christ! The only reason for this to be included in the Gospels, which were written based on the eyewitness accounts of the apostles and those who knew Jesus, is if it were true. It would have been much easier to explain if the apostles themselves were said to have discovered the empty tomb.

Go and See for Yourself

I mentioned an important bit of Scripture earlier – that passage from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, in which he restates the Christian creed and mentions that the risen Christ appeared to over five hundred people. It must be remembered that this was written only twenty years after the death of Christ. There would still be living witnesses, those who knew Jesus and who saw him in his risen form. Paul himself is one of them, as the risen Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Interestingly, Paul doesn’t just say that Christ appeared to over five hundred people. He also explicitly mentions that many of them are still alive. Paul is explaining to the Corinthians that if they don’t believe in the resurrected Christ, they can take a road trip to Jerusalem and ask the people that saw Christ about the veracity of the resurrection.

Obviously, Paul did not individually list the five hundred to whom Christ appeared by name, but we can assume by context clues that the Corinthians were already aware of the existence of these people. Throughout the Epistles, Paul does go into further detail on the subject of eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection. He writes that Peter was the first eyewitness (1 Corinthians 15:5), followed by the rest of the apostles as they gathered together to eat on the Sunday of Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:4-8, also mentioned in John 20:19-20). The next eyewitness that Paul explicitly mentions is James, Christ’s half-brother (Galatians 2:9.) This is significant, and I will delve into it a bit deeper in a moment, but let’s not forget the most significant eyewitness of them all: Paul himself. 

Paul was formerly known as Saul, a devout Jew and a successful member of the Jewish community in Palestine. He was an active persecutor of the early Christians, as we see in Acts where he is present at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Paul himself mentions his checkered past in Galatians, and in that same letter we get early Christian testimony that “he who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy.” (Galatians 1:23 NIV) The risen Christ appeared to Paul as he was traveling to Damascus to carry out a Christian persecution.

The other extremely significant witness to the risen Christ was James. James was Jesus’ younger half-brother and did not follow Jesus or believe in his divinity while Jesus was alive. In fact, we have Christ himself say as much in three of the Gospels: “No prophet is accepted in his hometown,” (Luke 4:24 NIV). We also see Jesus interact directly with his mother Mary and his younger brothers in the book of Matthew. The family waits outside a temple for him as he finishes preaching, but when he sees them he says, “‘Who is my mother and who are my brothers?’ And he stretched out his hand toward his disciples and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:46-50.) If you put yourself in the shoes of James, you can understand that he was probably not the biggest fan of his older brother. In fact, he was likely embarrassed by his brother’s claims to divinity as well as his seeming inability to perform miracles when he returned to his hometown. In the book of John, we get a collective quote from Jesus’ younger brothers. They hear him claiming to do miracles, and tell him to leave Galilee to prevent embarrassing them further, “for even his own brothers did not believe in him.” (John 7:5 NIV) 

This makes James’ conversion all the more significant. He was firmly opposed to the divinity of Christ for very personal reasons, and yet he became one of the most enthusiastic early Christians and founded the church in Jerusalem. Acts, as well as several mentions in Paul’s letters, tells us that this happened due to an appearance from the risen Christ. What else could have changed the hearts of James, doubting half-brother of Christ, and Paul, formerly the staunch anti-Christian Saul of Tarsus? These men not only converted, they were so convinced by what they had seen that they formed the bedrock of the early Church and ultimately died for their beliefs.

Conclusions

To put things rather bluntly, we have quite a few pieces of evidence that testify to the resurrection, and none that provide a contemporary alternative theory. However, that is not to say that the evidence we currently have is totally airtight or without bias. What the issue can be boiled down to is this: without the resurrection of Christ, what was the impetus for the early Christian movement? A movement so strong, that spread so rapidly, and that was characterized by bold and judicious early leaders like Paul and James who wrote so fervently about their faith and were willing to die for their belief in the risen Christ. To account for these factors without the resurrection, we must propose an alternative theory. As of the writing of this post, after two thousand years of examination and debate, there are none that stand up to the most basic of scrutiny.

For example, popular Christian-turned-atheist writer Bart Ehrman claims in his book How Jesus Became God that the apostles did see a risen Christ, but it was actually a mass hallucination brought on by grief. There are two major issues with this theory. One, it doesn’t explain the conversion of Paul or James, men that were opposed to the Christian movement and didn’t have a reason to be suffering any kind of grief hallucination about the resurrection of Christ. Second, we know now that mass hallucination is impossible; hallucinations happen on an individual basis, and two people cannot experience the same hallucination.

Other theories, such as the argument that the early Christians knew the resurrection was hokum but were so heartbroken about the loss of their leader that they decided to press ahead anyway, do not hold up either. It would have been easy to proclaim such a thing, but as soon as these Christians were lined up for execution and the first heavy stone hit them in the face or chest, they would have been readily admitting it was all a farce. However, this never happened.

To argue against the resurrection of Christ, one must provide an argument that refutes the evidence that I’ve tried my best to summarize above. As of yet, this argument does not exist, but if it does I would be excited to read it and engage with it. I hope you enjoyed this post and found it to be educational! Subscribe below for future content.

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