The Historical Resurrection of Jesus

Jesus presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. - Acts 1:3

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the lynchpin of Christianity. It was so important that Jesus proved himself alive to his followers for forty days, beginning immediately after he rose. Here are a few evidences that the resurrection is historically reliable:

1. Jesus’ Tomb was Found Empty the Sunday After His Death

What scholars now know about Jewish culture and Roman law pertaining to the testimony of women gives strong foundation for the testimonies of the women in the gospels who found Jesus’ tomb empty. On this, Keener says,

“The witness of women at the tomb is very likely historical, precisely because it was so offensive to the larger culture—not the sort of testimony one would invent. Not all testimony was regarded as being of equal merit; the trustworthiness of witnesses was considered essential. Yet most of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries held much less esteem for the testimony of women than for that of men; this suspicion reflects a broader Mediterranean limited trust of women’s speech and testimony also enshrined in Roman law.”[1]

William Craig comes to the same conclusion and gives five reasons for why the women’s testimony is reliable: 1) this story is part of the old source material that Mark used in writing his gospel, 2) the early story that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 15 implies an empty tomb, 3) the story lacks sign of legendary embellishment based on its simplicity, 4) women’s testimony in first-century Palestine was considered worthless, giving strength to this story being accurate, and 5) Jewish men early on said that the disciples had stolen the body, which shows that the body was indeed missing. [2]

2. Many People Saw Jesus After He was Buried in the Tomb

Almost all New Testament scholars agree that multiple people believed that they encountered Jesus after his death. The following reasons are noted for this: 1) Paul wrote to the Corinthians that many people had encountered Jesus after his death (one was himself, the disciples and James were also included, and over five hundred others as well) and 2) the differences in the gospel accounts of the New Testament, along with Paul and other non-canonized gospels give us multiple independent attestations of this event.

Known skeptic of the physical resurrection, Gerd Ludemann, concludes, ‘It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.’[3] Ludemann and other skeptics believe those experiences were either mystical events or psychological illusions. The problem with their reasoning is that psychological illusions only happen in individual experiences, never in mass as we see with the resurrection accounts, and that the same sources they use to conclude the historical certainty of the disciples’ encounters of the risen Christ do not portray a mystical experience, but rather a physical, historical reality of the resurrection.

3. Many People Saw the World Differently Shortly After Jesus’ Crucifixion

The followers of Jesus were all Jews who would have understood the world with a Jewish worldview. This worldview changed in many ways shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus. N.T. Wright says, ‘The widespread Christian impetus towards what was often a risky and costly mission can only be explained in terms of the belief that Israel had now been redeemed, and that the time for the Gentiles had therefore come.’[4]

Timothy Keller writes, ‘The first Christians had a resurrection-centered view of reality. They believed that the future resurrection had already begun in Jesus.’[5] No longer was the promise of God’s love and redemption to be just for the Jews; now it was to be for all people throughout the entire world. The promised Messiah that Israel awaited had come, and it was their God-given duty to proclaim it to the Gentiles. The resurrection that was to come for all people had begun. As Wright points-out, the pace at which their worldview changed was unprecedented. Every other case that we know of took time; this was a sudden change.[6]

Events are deemed historical when they are found to be the best explanation for all of the given evidences. What is the best explanation for these evidences? There was an empty tomb where a dead man was laid, hundreds of people said they saw him alive, and many people’s lives were suddenly changed to the point that they were willing to do anything for the world to know that they too could live forever with him. We must conclude that Jesus’ resurrection is historically reliable.

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[1] Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, 331.
[2] Copan & Tacelli, Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig & Gerd Ludemann, 33.
[3] Ludemann, What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection, 80.
[4] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 445.
[5] Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, 217.
[6] Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 552.