To answer this question we need to examine the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. As we do this, two further questions will guide our investigation. Firstly, what are the historical facts that require an explanation? Secondly, which explanation best accounts for these facts? Answering the question of Jesus’ resurrection is of vital importance for both the believer and skeptic alike. Jesus made outrageous claims about Himself. He claimed to be the Son of God and the saviour of the world. He even predicted His own physical resurrection from the dead. If Jesus truly rose again after death His claims of being God incarnate, the saviour of the world and the one and only way to Heaven are surely validated. This has massive implications for each and every one of us. However, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, we can dismiss Him as just another interesting but tragic figure from history. The truth of Christianity really does stand or fall on the question of the resurrection of Jesus.
Part One - The Historical Facts
Let’s first consider the historical facts that require an explanation. The vast majority of first-century historians accept the following four facts, regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus, as virtually indisputable.
Fact #1: The crucifixion and burial of Jesus
Many skeptics contend that Jesus did not die on the cross. For example, many Muslims believe that someone else (such as Judas) was crucified in Jesus’ place (Sura 4:157). Other skeptics argue that Jesus merely fainted while on the cross and was later revived. However, we can be confident that Jesus really was crucified and buried as recorded in the New Testament.
The crucifixion of Jesus is recorded in a number of ancient historical writings, both Christian and non-Christian. The execution of Jesus is reported in the four Gospels, in a number of first-century letters contained in the New Testament, and by several non-Christian sources, such as Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, and Mara Bar Serapion. Even the Jewish Talmud records the public execution of Jesus.
In regards to the burial of Jesus, it was common for those crucified as criminals by the Romans to be buried in a common graveyard. However, the Bible records that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in a private tomb. This is a highly significant detail. Firstly, given the hostility between the Jewish authorities and Christians, the claim that Joseph of Arimathea, who was a member of the Jewish high court that condemned Jesus, petitioned Pilate for permission to bury Jesus’ body, is unlikely to be a Christian invention. The Jewish authorities could’ve easily exposed such a fabrication if it was a lie. Secondly, the location of Jesus’ tomb was therefore known in Jerusalem to Jews and Christians alike. Furthermore, the burial story is simple and lacks any sign of legendary development. In fact the earliest records have been dated to within just a few years of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, and no competing burial story exists.
For these reasons we can be confident that Jesus was crucified and then buried in a private tomb.
Fact #2: The empty tomb
The New Testament records that on Sunday after the crucifixion, Mary and the other women went to anoint the body of Jesus. However, when they arrived at the tomb, they found it open and Jesus’ body missing.
The empty tomb is recorded in 6 independent sources. Given the number of sources and the time at which they were written, the vast majority of historians are confident that this detail of the empty tomb is true and not a product of legendary development from centuries after the event.
Furthermore, the fact women discovered the empty tomb is highly significant. In first-century Palestine, women had low status as citizens and legal witnesses. Their testimony was not considered on par with that of a man. Except in rare circumstances, Jewish law precluded women from providing direct evidence in a court of law. If the empty tomb story was a lie or a product of legendary development written centuries later, it would’ve stated that men, not women, had discovered Jesus’ empty tomb. Christian apologist Sean McDowell notes that, “The fact that the disciples include women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb points to one thing – they were reporting the truth.”
Our confidence in the empty tomb is further increased by the response of the Jewish authorities. Upon hearing that Jesus’ tomb was empty, they accused Jesus’ followers of stealing the body - implicitly admitting that the tomb was in fact empty.
Fact #3: The disciples believed they witnessed resurrection appearances of Jesus
To verify Jesus’ resurrection, evidence must demonstrate that He was seen alive again after His death. In Acts 1:3 Luke records that the disciples repeatedly saw Jesus over a forty-day period after His crucifixion and burial.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, one of the oldest passages of the New Testament, Paul provides a list of witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Paul writes that, “He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of who are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him.”
Christian apologist, William Lane Craig notes that on the basis of Paul’s testimony alone virtually all-historical scholars agree that various individuals and groups experienced appearances of Jesus alive after His death. Furthermore, various resurrection appearances of Jesus are independently confirmed in the four gospels.
Fact #4: The transformed lives of the disciples
Following the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, the response of the disciples was to scatter. Like cowards they hid from the Roman and Jewish authorities, in fear that they would suffer the same fate as Jesus. At this time the disciples were devastated and demoralized. As Jews they had no understanding of a Messiah that would be executed by their enemies, much less come back to life. Jews believed no one would be resurrected until the end of the world. However, despite all this, the disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Completely transformed, the disciples fearlessly began to publicly proclaim Jesus as God, the resurrected Messiah, and the savior of the world.
The disciples faced arrest, torture and death for believing in and preaching about the resurrection of Jesus. All but one of the disciples was executed for their faith, and not one ever recanted. This is a significant historical fact. Some may endure torture and even death for a lie if they believe it’s true. But no one willingly accepts pain and suffering and death for what they know is a lie and which will yield no benefit of any sort for their family and friends they leave behind. The disciples were in a position to know if the resurrection of Jesus was a lie. They knew it was true, and it totally transformed their lives.
Take for example the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, who hated Christians and everything they stood for. He saw them as a threat to his Judaism. Saul persecuted Christians, but then suddenly became a Christian, then changed his name to Paul. What happened? Paul writes that he had an encounter with the risen Jesus and was totally transformed.
Consider James, Jesus’ skeptical half-brother. Before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, James did not believe His claim to deity; in fact, the gospel of Mark records that James thought his older brother was ‘out of his mind.’ However, after the resurrection James became the leader of the Jerusalem church and was later stoned to death for his belief that Jesus was God. Something transformed him. Paul writes that James had an encounter with the risen Jesus.
Furthermore, if Jesus did not rise from the dead how do we account for the origin and rapid growth of the Christian movement? The book of Acts records the fact that within a few weeks following the resurrection of Jesus, thousands in the same city were converted through the preaching of His resurrection. Also, within a short time in the same city, a great number of Jewish priests were converted to Christ. Despite severe persecution, the Christian movement spread so far and so fast that within a few decades it covered the Roman Empire, touching even Caesar’s own household. Even the enemies of early Christianity confessed that it turned the world upside down. What could account for this growth if Jesus were still dead? New Testament scholar N.T. Wright states that, “As an historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind Him.”
These four historical facts surrounding the resurrection of Jesus cry out for an adequate explanation. How do you explain them?
Part Two - The Explanations
Let’s now explore some common explanations and consider which one best accounts for the historical facts. Throughout history many explanations have been put forward to explain away the resurrection of Jesus. However, every naturalistic explanation fails to adequately account for the historical facts. The four most popular naturalistic explanations are: the stolen body theory, the swoon theory, the displaced body theory, and the hallucination theory.
Explanation #1: The stolen body theory
This theory suggests that Jesus did not rise from the dead but rather his body was stolen and the resurrection story was a lie. There were three groups that could’ve possibly stolen the body: the Romans, the Jewish religious leaders, and the disciples.
Maybe the Romans stole the body to cause division amongst the Jewish population, between the new Christian movement and the Jewish religious leaders. Maybe it was part of a political strategy; if the Jews were divided fighting amongst themselves they couldn’t unite and overthrow their Roman oppressors. This theory is extremely unreasonable. The Roman authorities were charged with keeping the peace in Palestine, not stir up conflicts. In terms of the Roman Empire, the city of Jerusalem and the region of Judea were rather insignificant. It would’ve been the motivation of the Roman authorities to keep the area peaceful thus warranting a promotion back to Rome or to a city much closer to the heart of the Roman Empire.
Maybe the Jewish religious leaders stole the body? This theory makes little sense. The Jewish leaders had no motive to steal the body. They wanted Jesus dead and buried and for it to stay that way. Furthermore, even if they had, when the Christians began preaching ‘Jesus is risen’ the Jewish authorities could’ve easily dragged Jesus’ body out to squash, in their eyes, the blasphemous Christian movement.
Maybe the disciples stole the body; lied about seeing Jesus resurrected and fabricated the entire story. This theory is extremely unlikely for a number of reasons. Firstly, following the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples were in hiding, fearing for their lives. It is extremely implausible to contend that a small group of fearful and demoralized Jewish men managed to steal the body by defeating several heavily armed and well-trained Roman soldiers who were guarding the tomb of Jesus. Secondly, this theory fails to account for the fact that all but one of the disciples was executed for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Some of the disciples were crucified, stabbed, hung and beheaded. Others were whipped, clubbed and stoned. One disciple was dragged around the city until his body lay in pieces. No one dies for a lie they know is a lie, when speaking the truth will save them, especially when their death doesn’t even secure some benefit or safety for loved ones they leave behind.
The stolen body theory fails to account for the historical facts. It is unreasonable to believe any version of this theory.
Explanation #2: The Swoon Theory
This theory suggests that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross but merely fainted from exhaustion and loss of blood but then later revived and the disciples thought it to be a resurrection. Such a theory is wildly implausible. Roman executioners were professionals, they knew what they were doing, and made sure their victims were dead before being taken down after crucifixion. Their very lives depended on it. If a condemned person managed to avoid death, the executioners would pay for their mistake with their own lives.
Furthermore, before Jesus was crucified, He was whipped and brutally beaten. Some victims died from such torture before even being nailed to a cross. Mark 15:44 records that Pilate asked a Roman centurion to double-check that Jesus had actually died. John 19:34 records that eyewitnesses saw a release of blood and water when a solider speared Jesus in the side, piercing his rib cage, lung and heart. This is exactly what medical science expects when a person dies under these conditions. Severe shock from loss of blood would’ve accelerated His heart rate leading to a massive heart attack, depositing fluid in the membrane around the heart and lungs. First-century eyewitnesses would’ve naturally described this substance as water.
Even if Jesus somehow survived the cross, He would’ve had to endure an impossible ordeal to fake His own resurrection: survive three days in a tomb without food and medical care; survive despite being unable to breathe due to the mummy-like burial wrappings that also prevented Him from unwrapping Himself; single-handedly roll back the 2 tonne stone from inside the tomb; fight off the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb; walk for miles on wounded feet; and then convince the disciples and other followers that He had risen from the dead.
Explanation #3: The Displaced Body Theory
This theory suggests that perhaps Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’ body in his private tomb temporarily, out of convenience, but later moved it to a criminal’s common graveyard. Then when the disciples arrived at the first tomb and found it empty they wrongly concluded that Jesus must have risen from the dead. This relocation hypothesis is supported by the historical fact that reburial was common in ancient Palestine. However, Jewish tradition differed. In fact, Jewish law would have prohibited the relocation of Jesus’ body in this way. The Jewish tradition was to bury a body for one year and then after the flesh had deteriorated and only the bones remained they would then be placed in an ossuary.
The main problem for the displaced body theory is the complete lack of historical support, either in Biblical or non-biblical sources. Also, it is important to remember that it was not the empty tomb alone that convinced the disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead. It was His resurrection appearances. Furthermore, once the disciples began to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection Joseph or whoever relocated the body would have corrected the disciples’ mistake, proving the resurrection of Jesus false. Christianity would have never gotten off the ground.
Explanation #4: The Hallucination Theory
This theory suggests that the disciples and all the other witnesses who claimed to see Jesus alive again after His death were hallucinating; that they simply imagined seeing the risen Jesus. Perhaps the disciples, so overcome by shock, grief and distress following the crucifixion of their beloved leader, hallucinated and mistakenly believed Jesus had risen from the dead.
This theory faces significant challenges. Jesus didn’t appear just one time, He appeared many times. He didn’t just appear in one place, He appeared in many different places. He didn’t appear just to one person, He appeared to many different people. He didn’t appear just to individuals, He appeared to groups as well. He didn’t appear just to Christians, He appeared to non-Christians too. He didn’t appear just to men, He appeared to women also.
The contention that these appearances were the result of hallucinations has been convincingly dismissed by psychology. Hallucinations are subjective, individual occurrences that are not shared by groups of people and are usually induced by drugs or bodily deprivation. In regards to the resurrection appearances of Jesus, Christian apologist, Lee Strobel notes that, “it’s certainly unlikely that over a course of many weeks, people from all sorts of backgrounds, all kinds of temperaments, and in various places all experienced similar hallucinations.”
Moreover, in the ancient world visions of the deceased was not evidence that the person was alive, but rather that the person was dead and had moved on to the afterlife. First century Jews, such as the disciples, would’ve interpreted such a vision of Jesus as confirmation that he had transcended into heaven not that he had risen from the dead.
Furthermore, this theory does not explain the empty tomb. If the disciples were simply hallucinating, Jesus’ body would’ve still been in the grave. Once the disciples began preaching about the resurrection, the Jewish and Roman authorities could’ve easily produced Jesus’ body to silence the disciples.
We’ve looked at the four most popular alternate explanations and found that all four theories fail to adequately account for the historical facts. So, how do we explain them? One remaining explanation is that of the original eyewitnesses, who claimed God raised Jesus from the dead. Unlike the other theories, this explanation makes sense of the historical facts. But is this belief reasonable? After all it would take a supernatural act of God to raise Jesus from the dead. But if it’s even possible that God exists, this explanation cannot be ruled out. Peter Slezak, Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of New South Wales acknowledges that, “For a God who is able to create the entire universe, the odd resurrection would be child’s play.”
So, how do you explain the resurrection?
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Further reading recommendations
‘The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus’ by Gary Habermas & Michael Licona
‘The Resurrection of Jesus’ by Michael Licona
'The Resurrection of the Son of God' by N.T. Wright
‘The Case For Christ’ by Lee Strobel
‘Who Moved The Stone?’ by Frank Morison
‘Evidence That Demands a Verdict’ by Josh & Sean McDowell
‘On Guard’ by William Lane Craig
‘More Than a Carpenter’ by Josh & Sean McDowell
‘Cold-Case Christianity’ by J. Warner Wallace