Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

The past year has been very difficult for a lot of people. The past months have been especially so for my family. In the span of six weeks, my wife and I lost my mother, my youngest brother, and then my wife’s mother. None of these deaths were related to COVID, none of them were expected, all of them were a shock. So you can understand why our hope in the resurrection—life after death—has been particularly on our minds lately. Of course, what is not actually true can’t be truly comforting. Fairy tales and empty religious platitudes may be nice, but they don’t have any real power to comfort or give hope because they’re not real. To give meaningful comfort and hope requires something that is grounded in what is substantially factual. The Christian apostle Paul realized this and wrote:

And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless . . . if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.
1 Corinthians 15:17-19

Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

So this makes it necessary for us to consider the question: Did Jesus really rise from the dead? As I (and many others) have written before, Christianity is a historical faith, not just in the sense that it’s historically significant but that it’s based on a historical person and historical events. Without this historical person (Jesus Christ) and historical events (Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection), there is no Christianity. So the question of whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead is of paramount importance. But let me be quick to clarify that what we are not seeking to do is somehow prove that Jesus rose from the dead. No one can absolutely prove that something happened in history. We can’t prove that George Washington was the first U.S. president, or that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. What we can do is examine the historical evidence and determine whether it’s sufficient to warrant acceptance of a particular claim. This is neither absolute proof nor is it blind faith; it’s a weighing of the preponderance of the historical evidence.

So what is the evidence we must weigh to determine whether or not we should believe in the resurrection of Christ? [In previous posts, I’ve already presented the case for the historical existence of Jesus, the general historical reliability of the biblical Gospels, etc. See below to find links to these posts.] There’s actually quite a bit of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, focused in four key areas of interest. Some have used acronyms as a helpful way to remember these core factors. I think the easiest one to remember is an acronym I first heard from Abdu Murray that presents the CASE for the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

C — crucifixion
A — appearances
S — skeptics
E — empty tomb

The overwhelming consensus of scholars who study the historical Jesus—including both Christians and non-Christians—is that Jesus was a real, historical person who gained a following in first century Galilee and Judea, and who was subsequently crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem. Especially when we consider the severity of Roman crucifixion and their expertise at this form of execution, there is little reason to doubt that Jesus died as a result of being crucified.

The biblical Gospels include detailed accounts of Jesus appearing to his followers after his crucifixion. These accounts are careful to describe Jesus after his death as having a physical body, and not being merely a disembodied spirit. In a very early letter, Paul also lists these appearances of the resurrected Christ, and notes that most of the large number of people who witnessed these appearances of Jesus (over 500) were still alive at that time. I’ll look at some challenges to the resurrection accounts below, but it may come as a surprise to many to know that most Jesus scholars, even those who aren’t Christians, accept that these disciples of Jesus witnessed something that caused them to believe Jesus had risen from the dead.

The Gospel accounts describe the followers of Jesus as being defeated and fearful prior to witnessing the resurrected Jesus. This kind of characterization of leaders of a new movement is something you just don’t find in writings of that time period. Even more striking are the people who openly opposed Jesus and his followers, who later became devout followers of Jesus and outspoken proponents of the new Christian faith. This would include people such as James, the brother of Jesus who resisted his ministry before his death, and Paul of Tarsus, who actively sought to stamp out this new sect, disrupting church gatherings and imprisoning Christian believers. What could turn these skeptics and opponents into followers and champions of the way of Christ? According to the documented accounts we have from the first century, this radical change was caused by them personally encountering the resurrected Jesus.

Empty Tomb
The bodies of those who were crucified were typically left unburied, but the Gospel accounts specify that Jesus was buried, and they document the name of the person in whose tomb Jesus’ body was placed: Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent national leader at that time. Again, the vast majority of Jesus scholars accept these accounts as historically reliable. Why is this important? Because we now have a historical question we need to resolve: Why was the tomb empty? And this is as good a time as any to discuss some of the challenges presented to the resurrection claim.

Challenges to the empty tomb

(Again, to see reasons for accepting the historical existence of Jesus and the reliability of the biblical accounts, see the links below.)

The disciples hid Jesus’ body and lied about his resurrection.
This is the most direct challenge: “It’s all a lie.” The first problem with this theory is that it goes against all the documented evidence we have regarding the character of these early disciples of Jesus. Even their opponents conceded their moral character. Some say the descriptions of these disciples were also either fictitious or deceptive, manufacturing their good reputations. But these accounts were widely disseminated while most of the people in question were still around. If these disciples of Jesus were presented as sincere, honorable, humble followers of Christ when they were actually manipulative con men, there would have been a very loud outcry from the opponents of Christianity exposing this duplicity. We have no mention of anything like this.

And just what did this alleged deception get these men? Many of them did become leaders in this new movement, this is true. And what did that get them? They became leaders of a persecuted faith, hunted by both Jewish leaders and Roman officials. Their roles as apostles and leaders just made them more of a target. They weren’t rewarded with great wealth, fine estates or comfortable lives. Their “power” wasn’t control of an established institution, but merely moral authority, the respect and admiration of their fellow Christian believers. Most of them led itinerant lives, surviving simply as they moved from town to town—much as Jesus did—sharing this (allegedly manufactured) Good News with anyone who would receive it. And the outcome for most of them was violent death by means of public execution. And through all of this, not one of these “conspirators”—faced with losing their lives allegedly for the sake of a lie—ever recanted and admitted it was all made up. Conspiracies are simply not that foolproof, and the more people who are part of a conspiracy the more porous they become, especially when one’s life is at stake. Of course, people die for causes all the time that may or may not be true. One can be sincerely wrong, after all, and willingly die for a false faith. But people do not willingly die for something they know to be a lie. And it would be even more incredible to think that a large number of people faced persecution and horrible deaths for something they knew to be false without even one of them defecting.

They went to the wrong tomb.
Of course, if this were the case, this mistake would have been easily and quickly rectified by the Jewish leaders or the Roman government.

Someone must have moved the body.
This can sound plausible until we start digging a little deeper. Who would have moved the body? If you think the disciples moved the body, then see the response above. (And don’t forget they would have been lying about not only the empty tomb but also all the appearances of Jesus and time spent with him after the resurrection.) If you think maybe the Jewish leaders or the Romans moved the body, then you have to answer the question: Why? More importantly, when Jesus’ followers began loudly proclaiming his resurrection from the dead, why wouldn’t the Jewish leaders or Romans have simply produced the dead body of Jesus and put an end to such nonsense?

They didn’t actually see Jesus physically, but experienced visions, dreams or hallucinations.
We need to remember that the biblical accounts are not of one or two quick, ethereal appearances. These are reports of numerous encounters over a span of time that included extensive interaction and discussion. Most psychologists deny the possibility of collective hallucination to begin with, but even if this were an option the biblical accounts simply do not fit what we know about hallucinations.

But could the disciples have witnessed a vision or a dream? Again, remember that this wouldn’t be one or two visions or dreams, but a whole bunch of visions or dreams. Still, to answer this we need to take into consideration the outcome of these experiences. If you or I were to suffer the loss of a loved one, and then one night we have a vision or dream of our loved one and speak with them, what would we tell everyone the next day? We’d say that we had a vision or a dream of our loved one! We might draw some comfort from such an experience, a connection with the “other side,” as it were. But what we wouldn’t do is say, “Wow, my mother rose from the dead!”

Some Jewish people in the first century did not accept the idea of the resurrection of the dead, while most others did believe in a resurrection at the end of the age, either of all Jews or all people. But while there was some debate over whether this was true and over specific details, everyone understood the resurrection in question to be a physical resurrection. What they either believed or denied was a resurrection of the body. The clear and consistent message of the earliest Christians (all of whom were Jewish) was that at that time—not at the end of the age—Jesus had been resurrected; he had risen from the dead.

This claim is also the only plausible explanation for the explosion of faith in Jesus among first century Jews after he suffered a Roman execution. Ordinarily, this would have been seen as a crushing defeat and proof positive that he was not the Messiah. [For more on this, see What good is a dead Messiah?] Dreams or visions or appearances of some kind of apparition may have been personally comforting to the disciples, but there’s no way they would have used such experiences as some kind of basis for claiming Jesus had been resurrected or that he truly was the Messiah. Jewish people at that time understood the idea of dreams or visions of people who had died. There would never have been any confusion of these kinds of phenomena with resurrection. One simply had nothing to do with the other, and any claim that it did would have been nonsensical to them. The number of dreams or visions one may have experienced was irrelevant to the question of resurrection.

Yet very quickly after the death of Jesus, a rapidly expanding movement—made up entirely of Jews initially—exploded onto the scene. This distinct group was devoted to faith in Jesus, hailing this man who had been shamefully executed in public by the Romans as their Messiah and Deliverer. And the central tenet at the heart of their movement was that Jesus was not dead, that he had raised from the dead, that he was resurrected. Historians agree there is no explanation for the rapid, explosive birth of Christianity among first century Jews other than the belief that Jesus had risen from the dead. That the earliest Christians believed this, and that this is at the heart of the rapid expansion of the Christian faith, is historically incontrovertible. The challenge for us is whether their claim is actually true. How else do we explain the evidence? For some 2,000 years, countless people have considered the alternative theories used to explain the empty tomb and found them to strain credulity. The most plausible conclusion based on the historical evidence is that Jesus actually did rise from the dead as his disciples claimed.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Of course, we can’t emphasize enough the implications of this claim. If Jesus really did rise from the dead, this changes everything. This would be strong confirmation that he is who he said he is, and that he came to do just what he said he came to do. This was God himself coming to us as one of us, revealing himself to us, and taking on himself the consequences of our sin to bring us back into relationship with him. And because he rose from death to life, we also can anticipate our own resurrection and the resurrection of those we love. The grave is real, but it’s a temporary reality. That’s why the Scriptures tell us the last enemy that Christ must defeat is death itself (1 Corinthians 15:26). This is why even though now we grieve, we can grieve with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We look forward to a perfectly renewed existence of life and relationship with no separation, decay or death (Revelation 21:3-5). This is why Jesus’ resurrection from the dead has always been, and remains, at the heart of the Christian faith.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? [see above]

The search for Jesus

[I originally posted this on July 28 of last year, but I wasn’t able to finish the series at that time. Because this is a vital topic, I’m “rebooting” this series to give it the attention it deserves.]

For quite some time, I’ve wanted to lead a discussion group on the search for the historical Jesus. Who was Jesus? What can we truly know about him? How can we sort through all the different claims and controversies that seem to be popping up everywhere? I originally planned to invite everyone in our community to this study, to encourage the active involvement of not only Christian believers but also seekers and skeptics as well. The timing and logistics for such a group haven’t fallen into place, so I’ve decided—for now—to write a series of blog posts on this topic.

Why is this important?
Beyond merely responding to the amazing amount of books and articles that have been produced in the last few years on the quest for the historical Jesus, these questions have profound significance for anyone interested in discovering what is really true. Christianity has always been an historical faith. By that I don’t mean it’s recorded in history, but that it claims as the basis for its existence an historical event. Christians who subscribe to the historic, orthodox Christian faith claim that Jesus lived, taught specific things (including dramatic claims regarding himself), was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead. We believe many other things as well, but the basis for everything we believe comes back to an historical Jesus: his life, teachings, death and—most crucially—his resurrection. Christians believe in this resurrection of Jesus as a literal, space/time event. The Christian apostle Paul, writing to other Christian believers, declared, “If Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God [1 Corinthians 15:14-15].”

Most Christians today would still echo this sentiment. If the claims in the New Testament are true, they change literally everything and have huge implications for the lives of every single person. If the New Testament accounts are not true, then this calls the entire Christian faith into question, at least in its historic, orthodox form. The stakes in resolving these questions are enormous, and this is why the academic study of these issues has garnered so much attention.

So how do we even approach this kind of subject? Can we know anything at all about the historical Jesus? That’s what we’re going to be exploring in the next few posts. But first, a few ground-rules.

Common courtesy
Unfortunately, courtesy isn’t always that common anymore.  I understand this topic may be very emotional for some people, but be warned now: hostile, insulting or vulgar comments will be deleted. I won’t censor the comments as far as real content—you can make any sincere assertions or challenges you like—but do so with respect and grace. Remember, this isn’t a debate, it’s a discussion. The idea isn’t to win an argument, it’s to seek truth, whatever the truth is and wherever the search may take us.

Stay on topic
This is a very broad-ranging area for discussion, and it will be really easy for the comments to begin losing focus. I’m going to try to cover all of the relevant issues (let me know if you think I’m missing something), but I’m going to post on only a single, specific aspect of this study at a time. So I’m asking you guys to keep your comments focused on the specific, limited issue we’re discussing at that time. For example, one of the questions we’ll examine early on is whether we can know that Jesus even existed. This is an important question we need to explore. When I do post on this issue, feel free to fire away with questions and challenges regarding the existence of Jesus. But don’t respond now to this current post with a diatribe on why Jesus couldn’t have existed (or, conversely, why no one should doubt his existence). We haven’t got there yet! I’m going to be extra vigilant at policing the comments because I don’t want our discussions to become derailed by trying to discuss too much at one time. I appreciate your help in this.

Absolute proof?
One misperception we should dispel right way is the idea that I’m trying to prove the Christian claims regarding Jesus are true. Some people demand proof beyond a shadow of a doubt before they’ll believe. Of course, we can’t absolutely prove anything, and this is especially true when we’re dealing with historical claims and evidence. When we’re examining history, what we’re looking for is more of a ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ to borrow a legal term. I can’t absolutely prove when and where I was born. But I can present a fairly compelling case that would likely convince anyone willing to believe. We don’t know absolutely that George Washington was the first U.S. president, that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, or that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. But we’re relatively certain these things occurred. In this discussion, we’re not expecting absolute proof (or at least we shouldn’t be); but we are looking to see if the evidence exists, and whether it’s compelling enough to reach a certain conclusion.

Perfect objectivity?
The philosophical term is ‘presuppositions,’ and we all have them. The idea that we can examine a subject and be completely impartial and objective is simply naive.  Each of us has been raised with, or has accumulated, various perceptions and viewpoints, and these presuppositions (what we naturally assume to be true) color how we think about any subject. We need to just be honest about that. But this doesn’t mean we can’t be aware of our presuppositions, that we can’t temporarily set them aside, and even consider the possibility we’re wrong. If we couldn’t do this, we wouldn’t be able to change our minds about anything! As one of my favorite sayings puts it: If you never have to change your mind, you’re probably not using it. We have the capability to see past our own viewpoints and fairly consider the claims of others. This is what I’m asking all of us to do in this discussion.

Specifically, for you evangelical believers, I’m asking you to reexamine why you believe what you believe. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined faith is not worth holding. Don’t merely refer back to what the Bible says. We need to be willing to explain why we believe the biblical account. It’s healthy for us to sincerely wrestle with these questions.

For you skeptics, I ask you to consider the possibility the New Testament accounts may be true. You don’t have to be convinced—but are you open to the possibility? Many have professed they were examining the claims regarding Christ in a fair, scholarly manner—but ruled out ahead of time any possibility of the supernatural. This isn’t intellectually honest. The conversation below is just an illustration, but these kinds of exchanges are actually not that uncommon:

skeptic: The miracles in the Bible never happened.

believer: How can you be sure?

skeptic: Because we don’t see miracles happening today.

believer: But what about all the reports of miracles happening today in people’s lives?

skeptic: Those reports aren’t valid.

believer: Why not?

skeptic: Because miracles don’t happen!

The unbelieving person can rely on logic that is just as unsound and reasoning that is just as circular as the person who believes the Bible just because the Bible tells them to believe the Bible. Let’s all of us set aside our presumed conclusions, consider the possibility we may be wrong, and see where the evidence leads us.

Accessible, non-technical language
I confess that I enjoy reading dusty tomes on theology and philosophy. But if we were to carry on this discussion using technical philosophical terminology, a lot of people would get headaches trying to follow us and eventually drop out of the discussion. It’s important and right to challenge each other to think more deeply, but that doesn’t mean we have to use twenty-dollar words to do it. C.S. Lewis once said that if we can’t present our viewpoints in a simple, understandable manner, then we probably don’t really understand them ourselves! If you lapse into technical, philosospeak in the comments section, I may respond in kind for clarity. But let’s try to communicate as simply and clearly as we can so everyone can follow the conversation. We’re not here to impress each other, but to dig deeper for the truth.

In accounts recorded in the New Testament Gospels, Jesus is reported to have asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” This is the question we’re seeking to answer. So hang on, ’cause here we go.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus [see above]

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?