The resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the foundations upon which Christianity is built (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). The virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:18, 25; Luke 1:27), the deity of Christ (1 John 4:15, 5:5; John 10:30), Jesus’ atonement for sin (Romans 5:10–11; 2 Corinthians 5:21), and His crucifixion are non-negotiable truths, without which Christianity could not exist. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was the crowning achievement that forever separates Him from any other religious leader who has ever been or will ever live. No other religious figure in history has ever prophesied His own death and resurrection—and then accomplished it.
The fact that Jesus rose from the dead matters because it fulfilled prophecy. Jesus prophesied His resurrection (Mark 8:31), and so did the Old Testament (Psalm 16:10–11; Isaiah 53:12). Roman rule brought crucifixion as a particularly heinous form of capital punishment. Many people were crucified for their crimes and for insulting Caesar. So the facts of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial are not necessarily outstanding, as many suffered the same fate. However, the bodies of those other people are still in their graves. Jesus’ tomb is empty (Luke 24:24). If Jesus never rose from the dead, there would be no compelling reason to believe that He is who He said He is. But the fact is that He did rise again, confirming His claim to be God (Matthew 27:63; 28:6).
The fact that Jesus rose from the dead also matters because our justification hinges on it. “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25). A dead Savior cannot save, but we have a living Savior who justifies us and makes intercession for us (see Hebrews 7:25).
The fact that Jesus rose from the dead is fundamental to our faith. First Corinthians 15 is a detailed explanation of the importance of Jesus’ resurrection. Verse 14 states, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” In fact, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (verse 17), and believers who have died are “lost” (verse 18).
Jesus rose from the dead, and Paul presents that event as the only thing that gives us hope in this life. Christ was the first to permanently rise from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20), clearing the way for a future resurrection for all who believe (verses 22–23). Jesus’ claim that He has the power to grant eternal life is to be trusted because He Himself conquered death (Romans 8:11; John 3:16–18; 10:28).
From the earliest apostolic period, the reality of the empty tomb—the biblical truth that the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth was found empty by His disciples—has been at the center of the Christian proclamation. All four Gospels describe, to varying degrees, the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1–6; Mark 16:1–7; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–12). But are there any good reasons to think that these claims are historically accurate? Could a fair-minded investigator conclude that, in all probability, Jesus’ tomb was found empty on that first Easter morning? There are several arguments that have convinced a good many historians that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was indeed found empty on the Sunday following His crucifixion.
First, the location of Jesus’ tomb would have been known to Christians and non-Christians alike. While it is true that most victims of crucifixion were either thrown in a graveyard reserved for common criminals or simply left on the cross for birds and other scavengers to feed upon, the case of Jesus was different. The historical record indicates that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, the very group that had orchestrated Jesus’ execution. Many skeptical New Testament scholars have been convinced that Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to have been a Christian fabrication. Given the understandable hostility of the earliest Christians toward the Sanhedrin, whom they felt were largely responsible for their Master’s death, it is unlikely that Jesus’ followers would have invented a tradition about a member of the Sanhedrin using his own tomb to provide Jesus with a respectable burial.
In addition, recent archaeological discoveries have demonstrated that the style of tomb described in the burial accounts in the Gospels (an acrosolia or bench tomb) was largely used by the wealthy and other people of prominence. Such a description fits nicely with what we know of Joseph of Arimathea. Moreover, when we couple these considerations with the fact that Arimathea was a town of little importance that lacked any type of scriptural symbolism and that no competing burial tradition exists, any serious doubt that Jesus was buried in Joseph’s tomb is eliminated.
The significance of these facts should not be overlooked as the Sanhedrin would then have certainly known the location of Joseph’s tomb, and thus, where Jesus had been interred. And if the location of Jesus’ tomb was known to the Jewish authorities, it would have been nearly impossible for the Christian movement to have gained any traction in Jerusalem, the very city where Jesus was known to have been buried. Would not any of the Jewish religious leaders have taken the short walk to Joseph’s tomb to verify this claim? Did not the Sanhedrin have every motivation to produce Jesus’ corpse (if it were available) and put an end to these rumors of a resurrected Jesus once and for all? The fact that Christianity began to gain converts in Jerusalem tells us that no corpse had been produced despite the Jewish religious leadership having every motivation to produce one. If Jesus’ crucified body had been produced, the Christian movement, with its emphasis on a resurrected Jesus, would have been dealt a lethal blow.
Second, the empty tomb is implied in the early oral formula quoted by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. While all four Gospels attest to the vacancy of Jesus’ tomb, our earliest hint at the empty tomb comes from the Apostle Paul. Writing to the church at Corinth in approximately AD 55, Paul quotes an oral formula (or creed) that most scholars believe he received from the apostles Peter and James just five years after Jesus’ crucifixion (Galatians 1:18–19). Paul states, “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 Cephas, and then to the Twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3–5). When Paul writes “…that he was buried, that he was raised…” it is strongly implied (given Paul’s Pharisaical background) that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was empty. As a former Pharisee, Paul would have naturally understood that what goes down in burial comes up in resurrection; he accepted the idea of physical resurrection even before his encounter with Christ. Given that Paul’s source for this creed was most likely the Jerusalem apostles and their proximity to the events in question, Paul’s citation of this oral formula provides strong evidence that Jesus’ tomb had been found empty and that this fact was widely known in the early Christian community. The oft-repeated objection that Paul was unaware of an empty tomb is answered when we see that elsewhere Paul taught that Jesus’ resurrection was bodily in nature (Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:21). For Paul, a resurrection that did not produce a vacant tomb would have been a contradiction in terms.
Third, there appears to be strong enemy attestation of the existence of an empty tomb. The first of these comes from within the pages of the Gospel of Matthew itself where Matthew reports that there was an acknowledgment of the empty tomb by the Jewish leaders themselves (Matthew 28:13–15). They were claiming that the disciples had come and stolen away Jesus’ body. Given the proximity of the writing of Matthew’s Gospel to the event in question, such a claim would have been easy to disprove if untrue. For if Matthew were lying, his report of the Jewish response to the empty tomb proclamation could have easily been discredited as many of the contemporaries of the events in question would still have been alive when Matthew’s Gospel was initially circulating. But why would they accuse the disciples of stealing Jesus’ body if the tomb still contained the dead body of Jesus? The counter-accusation made by the Jews presupposes that the tomb was empty.
That the Jews accused the disciples of stealing Jesus’ body is corroborated by the Christian apologist Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century (Dialogue with Trypho, 108) and then again around AD 200 by the church father Tertullian (De Spectaculis, 30). Both Justin and Tertullian were interacting with the Jewish debaters of their day and were in a position to know what it was their Jewish opponents were saying. They were not simply relying on Matthew’s Gospel for their information. For both Justin and Tertullian mention specific details not found in the Gospel of Matthew. In fact, all three of these writers cite details not mentioned by the others. Based on these considerations, it appears that there was an early Jewish acknowledgement of an empty tomb.
Fourth, all four Gospels report that the tomb of Jesus was discovered empty by women. This point is especially significant given the patriarchal nature of first-century Israel. While it is true that, under very limited circumstances, women were allowed to testify in a court of law, it is also the case that, in first-century Jewish society, a woman’s testimony was worth far less than that of a man. If you were making up a story in an attempt to persuade others that Jesus had been resurrected, you would never have used women as your primary witnesses. Any made-up story would have featured male disciples like Peter, John, or Andrew as the discoverers of the empty tomb, as the testimony of men would have provided much-needed credibility to the story.
Yet the Gospels report that, while Jesus’ male disciples were cowering in fear, hiding from the authorities, it was women who were the earliest witnesses of the empty tomb. There would simply be no reason for the early church to concoct such a scenario unless it was true. Why would the early Christians portray their male leadership as cowards and place females in the role of primary witnesses? One of these named female witnesses (Mary Magdalene) was said to have been possessed of seven devils earlier in her life, thus making her an even less reliable witness in the eyes of many. And yet, despite these evidential handicaps, the earliest Christians insisted that the first witnesses to the empty tomb were, in fact, women. The most likely explanation of this insistence is that these women were the initial witness of the empty tomb and that the earliest Christians were unwilling to lie about it despite its potentially embarrassing nature.
All four of these arguments help to provide cumulative proof that the tomb of Jesus Christ was empty on the first Easter. Particularly telling is the conclusion of historian Michael Grant, himself a skeptic of Jesus’ resurrection, “…if we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was, indeed, found empty.”
Of course, there is more to the story than merely an empty tomb. The reason the tomb was found empty was that the man who was buried there had risen from the dead. Jesus would not only vacate His grave but appear to numerous people individually (Luke 24:34) and in groups (Matthew 28:9; John 20:26–30; 21:1–14; Acts 1:3–6; 1 Corinthians 15:3–7). And His resurrection from the dead would be the sure proof that He was who He claimed to be (Matthew 12:38–40; 16:1–4)—the risen Son of God, our only hope of salvation.
It is a fairly well-established fact that Jesus Christ was publicly executed in Judea in the 1st Century A.D., under Pontius Pilate, by means of crucifixion, at the behest of the Jewish Sanhedrin. The non-Christian historical accounts of Flavius Josephus, Cornelius Tacitus, Lucian of Samosata, Maimonides and even the Jewish Sanhedrin corroborate the early Christian eyewitness accounts of these important historical aspects of the death of Jesus Christ.
As for His resurrection, there are several lines of evidence which make for a compelling case. The late jurisprudential prodigy and international statesman Sir Lionel Luckhoo (of The Guinness Book of World Records fame for his unprecedented 245 consecutive defense murder trial acquittals) epitomized Christian enthusiasm and confidence in the strength of the case for the resurrection when he wrote, “I have spent more than 42 years as a defense trial lawyer appearing in many parts of the world and am still in active practice. I have been fortunate to secure a number of successes in jury trials and I say unequivocally the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt.”
The secular community’s response to the same evidence has been predictably apathetic in accordance with their steadfast commitment to methodological naturalism. For those unfamiliar with the term, methodological naturalism is the human endeavour of explaining everything in terms of natural causes and natural causes only. If an alleged historical event defies natural explanation (e.g., a miraculous resurrection), secular scholars generally treat it with overwhelming skepticism, regardless of the evidence, no matter how favourable and compelling it may be.
In our view, such an unwavering allegiance to natural causes regardless of substantive evidence to the contrary is not conducive to an impartial (and therefore adequate) investigation of the evidence. We agree with Dr. Wernher von Braun and numerous others who still believe that forcing a popular philosophical predisposition upon the evidence hinders objectivity. Or in the words of Dr. von Braun, “To be forced to believe only one conclusion… would violate the very objectivity of science itself.”
Having said that, let us now examine several lines of evidence for Christ’s resurrection.
The First Line of Evidence for Christ’s resurrection
To begin with, we have demonstrably sincere eyewitness testimony. Early Christian apologists cited hundreds of eyewitnesses, some of whom documented their own alleged experiences. Many of these eyewitnesses willfully and resolutely endured prolonged torture and death rather than repudiate their testimony. This fact attests to their sincerity, ruling out deception on their part. According to the historical record (The Book of Acts 4:1-17; Pliny’s Letters to Trajan X, 97, etc) most Christians could end their suffering simply by renouncing the faith. Instead, it seems that most opted to endure the suffering and proclaim Christ’s resurrection unto death.
Granted, while martyrdom is remarkable, it is not necessarily compelling. It does not validate a belief so much as it authenticates a believer (by demonstrating his or her sincerity in a tangible way). What makes the earliest Christian martyrs remarkable is that they knew whether or not what they were professing was true. They either saw Jesus Christ alive-and-well after His death or they did not. This is extraordinary. If it was all just a lie, why would so many perpetuate it given their circumstances? Why would they all knowingly cling to such an unprofitable lie in the face of persecution, imprisonment, torture, and death?
While the September 11, 2001, suicide hijackers undoubtedly believed what they professed (as evidenced by their willingness to die for it), they could not and did not know if it was true. They put their faith in traditions passed down to them over many generations. In contrast, the early Christian martyrs were the first generation. Either they saw what they claimed to see, or they did not.
Among the most illustrious of the professed eyewitnesses were the Apostles. They collectively underwent an undeniable change following the alleged post-resurrection appearances of Christ. Immediately following His crucifixion, they hid in fear for their lives. Following the resurrection they took to the streets, boldly proclaiming the resurrection despite intensifying persecution. What accounts for their sudden and dramatic change? It certainly was not financial gain. The Apostles gave up everything they had to preach the resurrection, including their lives.
The Second Line of Evidence for Christ’s resurrection
A second line of evidence concerns the conversion of certain key skeptics, most notably Paul and James. Paul was of his own admission a violent persecutor of the early Church. After what he described as an encounter with the resurrected Christ, Paul underwent an immediate and drastic change from a vicious persecutor of the Church to one of its most prolific and selfless defenders. Like many early Christians, Paul suffered impoverishment, persecution, beatings, imprisonment, and execution for his steadfast commitment to Christ’s resurrection.
James was skeptical, though not as hostile as Paul. A purported post-resurrection encounter with Christ turned him into an inimitable believer, a leader of the Church in Jerusalem. We still have what scholars generally accept to be one of his letters to the early Church. Like Paul, James willingly suffered and died for his testimony, a fact which attests to the sincerity of his belief (see The Book of Acts and Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews XX, ix, 1).
The Third and Fourth Lines of Evidence for Christ’s resurrection
A third line and fourth line of evidence concern enemy attestation to the empty tomb and the fact that faith in the resurrection took root in Jerusalem. Jesus was publicly executed and buried in Jerusalem. It would have been impossible for faith in His resurrection to take root in Jerusalem while His body was still in the tomb where the Sanhedrin could exhume it, put it on public display, and thereby expose the hoax. Instead, the Sanhedrin accused the disciples of stealing the body, apparently in an effort to explain its disappearance (and therefore an empty tomb). How do we explain the fact of the empty tomb? Here are the three most common explanations:
First, the disciples stole the body. If this were the case, they would have known the resurrection was a hoax. They would not therefore have been so willing to suffer and die for it. (See the first line of evidence concerning demonstrably sincere eyewitness testimony.) All of the professed eyewitnesses would have known that they hadn’t really seen Christ and were therefore lying. With so many conspirators, surely someone would have confessed, if not to end his own suffering then at least to end the suffering of his friends and family. The first generation of Christians were absolutely brutalized, especially following the conflagration in Rome in A.D. 64 (a fire which Nero allegedly ordered to make room for the expansion of his palace, but which he blamed on the Christians in Rome in an effort to exculpate himself). As the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus recounted in his Annals of Imperial Rome (published just a generation after the fire):
“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 Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (Annals, XV, 44)
Nero illuminated his garden parties with Christians whom he burnt alive. Surely someone would have confessed the truth under the threat of such terrible pain. The fact is, however, we have no record of any early Christian denouncing the faith to end his suffering. Instead, we have multiple accounts of post-resurrection appearances and hundreds of eyewitnesses willing to suffer and die for it.
If the disciples didn’t steal the body, how else do we explain the empty tomb? Some have suggested that Christ faked His death and later escaped from the tomb. This is patently absurd. According to the eyewitness testimony, Christ was beaten, tortured, lacerated, and stabbed. He suffered internal damage, massive blood loss, asphyxiation, and a spear through His heart. There is no good reason to believe that Jesus Christ (or any other man for that matter) could survive such an ordeal, fake His death, sit in a tomb for three days and nights without medical attention, food or water, remove the massive stone which sealed His tomb, escape undetected (without leaving behind a trail of blood), convince hundreds of eyewitnesses that He was resurrected from the death and in good health, and then disappear without a trace. Such a notion is ridiculous.
The Fifth Line of Evidence for Christ’s resurrection
Finally, a fifth line of evidence concerns a peculiarity of the eyewitness testimony. In all of the major resurrection narratives, women are credited as the first and primary eyewitnesses. This would be an odd invention since in both the ancient Jewish and Roman cultures women were severely disesteemed. Their testimony was regarded as insubstantial and dismissible. Given this fact, it is highly unlikely that any perpetrators of a hoax in 1st Century Judea would elect women to be their primary witnesses. Of all the male disciples who claimed to see Jesus resurrected, if they all were lying and the resurrection was a scam, why did they pick the most ill-perceived, distrusted witnesses they could find?
Dr. William Lane Craig explains, “When you understand the role of women in first-century Jewish society, what’s really extraordinary is that this empty tomb story should feature women as the discoverers of the empty tomb in the first place. Women were on a very low rung of the social ladder in first-century Israel. There are old rabbinical sayings that said, ‘Let the words of Law be burned rather than delivered to women’ and ‘blessed is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.’ Women’s testimony was regarded as so worthless that they weren’t even allowed to serve as legal witnesses in a Jewish court of Law. In light of this, it’s absolutely remarkable that the chief witnesses to the empty tomb are these women… Any later legendary account would have certainly portrayed male disciples as discovering the tomb – Peter or John, for example. The fact that women are the first witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly explained by the reality that – like it or not – they were the discoverers of the empty tomb! This shows that the Gospel writers faithfully recorded what happened, even if it was embarrassing. This bespeaks the historicity of this tradition rather than its legendary status.” (Dr. William Lane Craig, quoted by Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998, p. 293)
Scripture presents conclusive evidence that Jesus Christ was in fact resurrected from the dead. Christ’s resurrection is recorded in Matthew 28:1-20; Mark 16:1-20; Luke 24:1-53; and John 20:1–21:25. The resurrected Christ also appeared in the Book of Acts (Acts 1:1-11). From these passages you can gain several “proofs” of Christ’s resurrection. First is the dramatic change in the disciples. They went from a group of men frightened and in hiding to strong, courageous witnesses sharing the gospel throughout the world. What else could explain this dramatic change other than the risen Christ appearing to them?
Second is the life of the apostle Paul. What changed him from being a persecutor of the church into an apostle for the church? It was when the risen Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-6). A third convincing proof is the empty tomb. If Christ were not raised, then where is His body? The disciples and others saw the tomb where He was buried. When they returned, His body was not there. Angels declared that He had been raised from the dead as He had promised (Matthew 28:5-7). Fourth, additional evidence of His resurrection is the many people He appeared to (Matthew 28:5, 9, 16-17; Mark 16:9; Luke 24:13-35; John 20:19, 24, 26-29, 21:1-14; Acts 1:6-8; 1 Corinthians 15:5-7).
Another proof of the resurrection of Jesus is the great amount of weight the apostles gave to Jesus’ resurrection. A key passage on Christ’s resurrection is 1 Corinthians 15. In this chapter, the apostle Paul explains why it is crucial to understand and believe in Christ’s resurrection. The resurrection is important for the following reasons: 1) If Christ was not raised from the dead, believers will not be either (1 Corinthians 15:12-15). 2) If Christ was not raised from the dead, His sacrifice for sin was not sufficient (1 Corinthians 15:16-19). Jesus’ resurrection proved that His death was accepted by God as the atonement for our sins. If He had simply died and stayed dead, that would indicate His sacrifice was not sufficient. As a result, believers would not be forgiven for their sins, and they would remain dead after they die (1 Corinthians 15:16-19). There would be no such thing as eternal life (John 3:16). “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20 NAS).
Finally, Scripture is clear that all those who believe in Jesus Christ will be raised to eternal life just as He was (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). First Corinthians 15 goes on to describe how Christ’s resurrection proves His victory over sin and provides us the power to live victoriously over sin (1 Corinthians 15:24-34). It describes the glorious nature of the resurrection body we will receive (1 Corinthians 15:35-49). It proclaims that, as a result of Christ’s resurrection, all who believe in Him have ultimate victory over death (1 Corinthians 15:50-58).
What a glorious truth the resurrection of Christ is! “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). According to the Bible, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is most definitely true. The Bible records Christ’s resurrection, records that over 500 people witnessed the resurrected Christ, and proceeds to build crucial Christian doctrine on the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection.
These lines of evidence: the demonstrable sincerity of the eyewitnesses (and in the Apostles’ case, compelling, inexplicable change), the conversion and demonstrable sincerity of key antagonists- and skeptics-turned-martyrs, the fact of the empty tomb, enemy attestation to the empty tomb, the fact that all of this took place in Jerusalem where faith in the resurrection began and thrived, the testimony of the women, the significance of such testimony given the historical context; all of these strongly attest to the historicity of the resurrection. We encourage our readers to thoughtfully consider these evidences. What do they suggest to you? Having pondered them ourselves, we resolutely affirm Sir Lionel’s declaration:
“The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt.”