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Evidence for the Resurrection

As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Christ, challenges to the biblical narrative are circulating and surfacing as they do every year. The arguments against the resurrection of Christ are often stated emphatically, appealing to logic, science, and history in support of their position.

Considering that the resurrection is one of the most important tenets of the Christian faith, it is imperative that Christians understand the facts and truth about the resurrection, and be assured of the historical accuracy of their faith and belief.

There is a great deal of evidence to support the belief that Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead. In fact, we have more evidence for the events surrounding Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection–and from a variety of sources–than for any other ancient historical event. Examples include evidence for the empty tomb, the testimony of both friendly and hostile eyewitnesses, and the rapid spread of Christianity amidst persecution. All of these provide strong corroborative evidence that Jesus died and rose again, just as he predicted.

Evidence 1: Jesus Really Died

One major objection to the resurrection is the argument that Jesus never really died. On the surface that sounds reasonable, but this theory doesn’t hold up when all of the evidence is considered. Two main reasons for refuting this claim are the process of Roman crucifixion and the polarizing figure that Jesus was.

Roman crucifixion was a methodically-executed legal process carried out as capital punishment against criminals. The Romans were known for excellence, and this area was no exception. They knew how to inflict extreme pain and torture and ultimately ensure that the felon died. The process began with flogging. The whip that was used was often made with metal balls and sharp bones braided into leather thongs. When the person was lashed, the balls caused deep bruises and the bones ripped through the flesh. This left the internal organs and bones exposed from the top to the bottom of the back. Typically, 39 lashes were given, and by this time, many people had died from the loss of blood and internal damage. Those who didn’t were left extremely weak and vulnerable. 1

Once on the cross, those who didn’t die of blood loss died of asphyxiation, suffocating from lack of oxygen. Before a person was taken down from the cross, the Roman guards would ensure that he was dead, usually by breaking his knees so he could no longer prop himself up to breathe, and sometimes by piercing his side.2 After death, the blood separates from the plasma, which is a clear liquid. When a soldier pierced a dead man’s side, the heavier red blood cells would flow out first, followed by the clear plasma. This was a sure sign to the soldiers and all who were watching that he was dead.3

Based on the oldest historical documents, this is exactly what happened to Jesus. First he was flogged (John 19:1). Then he was nailed to a cross (John 19:18), and after several agonizing hours, he died (John 19:30). To confirm Jesus’s death, the soldiers pierced his side and out flowed what appeared to ancient eyewitnesses as “blood and water” (John 19:34). There is simply no way he could have survived this process.

A second reason that supports Jesus’s death relates to his being a very controversial figure. His public ministry had caused trouble for the Jewish religious elite, which in turn caused trouble for the Roman government. The chief priests were the ones who brought Jesus to trial, seeking to end his influence (Luke 23:10). Although Pilate and Herod found no basis for Jesus to deserve death, the Jewish authorities persisted. In order to silence the uproar of the crowds and prevent further riots, the Roman authorities consented to Jesus’s crucifixion. With the tension surrounding this event and Jesus’s ministry, the Roman guards would have ensured that Jesus was dead. Any chance of survival would have caused more chaos.4

Evidence 2: The Empty Tomb

With the assurance that Jesus was really dead, the authorities were now tasked with making sure there were no false claims about his resurrection. Jesus had been proclaiming that he would be killed and rise three days later. To ensure that the disciples did not steal the body, it was escorted to the tomb by Roman guards, covered with a two-ton stone, and sealed with a Roman signet. Guards were then stationed outside the tomb with the explicit task of keeping anyone from reaching the body for three days (Matthew 27:62-66).

Roman guards were trained military personnel, known for their discipline and faithfulness to their duty. With this current situation, they would also have faced death if they failed at their mission. Some have argued that the guards were asleep, allowing the disciples to steal the body. But it is extremely unlikely that all of the guards were asleep at the same time, knowing that they faced death if they failed. Even if they were asleep, the probability that the disciples would have been able to quietly move a two-ton stone and steal a body wrapped in seventy-five pounds of spices without a single guard waking up is unfathomable.

When the tomb did turn up empty three days later, the guards had all been scared away. The stone had been rolled away uphill, leaving the tomb exposed. The graveclothes were lying there, not tattered and tangled, but in the shape of a body, as if it had vanished from the inside (Matthew 28:2-4; John 20:6-7). The authorities did not deny the empty tomb. Instead, they spread the story that the disciples had stolen the body (Matthew 28:11-15). This is interesting to note because if Jesus was still dead and in the tomb, they easily could have stopped this story in its tracks. Eyewitnesses were proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection in the very town where he was killed and buried. If anyone wanted to see the empty tomb, they could go and see for themselves. No one doubted that the tomb was empty; they only wondered where the body had gone.5

 Many scholars believe that the eyewitness testimony of women is the strongest evidence for the empty tomb because the testimony of women was not highly regarded in that time. Any later attempt to fictionalize the empty tomb would have had the male disciples as the first witnesses.6

Evidence 3: Eyewitnesses

After Jesus arose, he appeared to many people, both to those who knew him and to those who didn’t. Accounts of the resurrection began circulating immediately. It could have been easily refuted by those who were eyewitnesses to the events, but instead the eyewitnesses affirmed the resurrection and the fledgling church grew, beginning right there in Jerusalem where the events had taken place. Five hundred people saw the resurrected Jesus at one time, and both individuals and groups of varying sizes interacted with him over the forty-day period following his death.7 Some people try to discredit this by saying that the whole group hallucinated, but a mass hallucination like that has never been seen and would be contrary to what we know scientifically regarding the private, mental nature of hallucinations.

Furthermore, even hostile witnesses admitted to seeing the risen Christ, putting to rest any speculation that these may have been grief-based hallucinations. The apostle Paul, also named Saul, was persecuting Christians for spreading false information about Jesus by calling him the Messiah (Acts 9:3-6). He was one of the strongest opponents of Jesus and his followers. However, after his encounter with the risen Lord, he was completely changed and believed in what Jesus had preached.8 Furthermore, James, the brother of Jesus, had been a skeptic during Jesus’s lifetime, but he, too, became convinced that Jesus was Lord when he saw Jesus risen from the dead.

Evidence 4: The Spread of Christianity Despite Persecution

 Before the resurrection, the disciples were scared and hiding. Peter did not even admit to knowing Jesus on the night he was arrested (Matthew 26:69-75). The disciples scattered after Jesus’s death, living in fear, grieving the fact that their hopes had been dashed. After the resurrection and encounter with the living Jesus, the disciples were suddenly emboldened and preached the gospel to anyone who would hear. Peter’s message in Acts 2:14-42 displays his complete change of character, from fear to boldness. The disciples preached the gospel despite rampant persecution, beatings, torture, and jail time (Mark 16:20). But they never wavered, such that they were willing even to die for what they knew to be true.

Christianity continued to spread like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire, despite the government’s best efforts to suppress it. People could not deny what they had seen and heard, and they were willing to pay the ultimate price for their beliefs.9

The Importance of the Resurrection

 Why does all this matter? Jesus’s work on the cross is the crux of our faith. Jesus claimed he would die to pay for the sins of the world, and he rose from the dead to prove that his claims were true. If he didn’t rise again, then our faith is in vain. The resurrection proves that Jesus is who he said he was: God in human flesh. The resurrection gives hope for eternal life, because Jesus died, rose, and conquered sin. Our sin is paid for, and we can have eternal life. That’s the best news of all.

Footnotes:

  1. “Why Did Blood and Water Come out of Jesus’ Side When He Was Pierced?”, GotQuestions.org, accessed on March 12, 2022, https://www.gotquestions.org/blood-water-Jesus.html.
  2. Lee Strobel and Jane Vogel, The Case for Christ: Student Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 87.
  3. “Why Did Blood and Water Come out of Jesus’ Side When He Was Pierced?” GotQuestions.org, accessed March 12, 2022. https://www.gotquestions.org/blood-water-Jesus.html. 
  4. Josh McDowell, “Evidence for the Resurrection,” Josh.org, accessed March 12, 2022, https://www.josh.org/wp-content/uploads/Evidence-For-The-Resurrection.pdf. 
  5. Matt Perman, “Historical Evidence for the Resurrection,” Desiring God, accessed March 12, 2022, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection. 
  6. William Lane Craig, “The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus,” Reasonable Faith, accessed March 12, 2022, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/images/uploads/The_Historicity_of_the_Empty_Tomb_of_Jesus.pdf.
  7. Perman, “Historical Evidence for the Resurrection,” https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection. 
  8. McDowell, “Evidence for the Resurrection,” https://www.josh.org/wp-content/uploads/Evidence-For-The-Resurrection.pdf
  9. Ibid.

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