People from all over the world are celebrating the coming back to life (or “resurrection”) of Jesus of Nazareth this Sunday. I wrote a post last year explaining why this resurrection happened, giving four reasons for the resurrection. This year, I want to briefly look at historical proofs for this.
The Christian faith is based on history. It is not merely historical—believing that Jesus rose in history does not necessarily make you a Christian. But it is historical. “If Christ has not been raised [in time, space, and history!]…then your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
And calling it the Christian “faith” does not imply a “leap of faith” (many may think it does these days; biblically, it doesn’t). We don’t blindly accept this happened in history. Instead, the word “faith” means trust: We trust in the Jesus who we know historically rose from the dead.
So, what are the evidences in history that he rose? This brief post will by no means be exhaustive on the topic. But here’s a basic line of reasoning and evidence. (It’s hard to crack.)
Jesus of Nazareth Lived, Died, and There Was An Empty Tomb
Least debated even among history scholars, is the fact that Jesus of Nazareth lived, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, was buried, and then there was an empty tomb.
I will not spend most of my post explaining this because, again, this is less debated. Most people don’t even debate that Jesus lived and died (yes, of course, you can find who deny this, but they have little to no evidence).
But it’s the fact of Jesus’ empty tomb that make the case even more interesting. Some lines of support for this include the publicness of Jesus’ life and death (numerous people witnessed it), the narratives recording women going to the tomb first (a made up story would never put that back in antiquity), and the historical responses of the Jews (who could’ve just shown the body or filled tomb if the tomb wasn’t empty).
In short, he lived, died, and his tomb a few days later was empty. Do some research. This is less debated. The question is, What happened?
What Happened? 6 Main Options
The historical question, then, concerns what happened to the body and the disciples, and how this whole revolutionary Christ-following began. There are six main options. And we’ll see, especially after covering options #1-5, that #6 makes the most historical sense.
1. The Disciples Stole the Body
Ask non-Christians why there was an empty tomb, and this is usually the first knee-jerk response: his followers stole the body. But this doesn’t hold up for many reasons.
First, this would mean the disciples lied about everything. This would possibly make sense if they lived long, comfortable lives after such a claim, but each of the disciples (except possibly the apostle John) was killed because of their belief in Jesus as the risen Lord God. If they all knew it was a hoax, it’s possible that one, two, or perhaps three out of the eleven would’ve died for a lie. But all of them were killed (or exiled, in John’s case) for this. And when human beings are put to the test of their lives—when they’re threatened with torture, pain, and death—they don’t all lie like this. In history, none of them recanted. They all held it to be true, in suffering, unto death. Why? Because they saw him alive.
If they had known they had stolen the body, this simply would not have happened. They could’ve stolen it for power reasons, fame reasons, or because they were desperate to say their Rabbi was alive. But if that were the case, when threatened to be burned alive or pushed off the temple or crucified upside-down (like Peter most likely was), at least one of them would’ve admitted it. Or, if someone else (maybe not even the disciples) stole the body, these disciples were still the ones dying for the claim that they saw Jesus alive again. Again, they would’ve been lying and most would’ve admitted it. But none of them did.
Second, the stolen body theory makes even less sense when we consider there were Roman guards at the tomb! Roman guards would’ve been killed if they fell asleep. It was no second rate security job. Their lives were at stake. They both didn’t fall asleep; it’s silly to think that happened. (But for the sake of argument, say even they did, we just saw the whole idea of stealing the body doesn’t work anyways!). So, this doesn’t hold up.
Third, and good to note, is the fact in Jewish literature there was not an idea that someone could or would rise from the dead before the resurrection on the last day. This may seem insignificant at first, but it’s substantial: These Jewish disciples wouldn’t even have this idea of a possible resurrection in their head. A pre-last day resurrection wasn’t part of their worldview.
It, therefore, does not fit historically that someone—whether the disciples or anyone else—stole Jesus’ body.
2. Jesus Was Only a Spirit or Ghost
Some claim it might be that the disciples didn’t see Jesus raised, but a ghost—his or maybe another’s. But this doesn’t hold up either.
First, the disciples taught that with clarity it was a physical resurrection. They said they ate with him and felt the holes in his hands. So, we’re back to the point from above, about them suffering, being tortured, and dying for a lie.
Second, even if it was only a ghost, then the real body would still have been in the tomb. Now we’re back to point one: Did the disciples then steal the body? Or if they didn’t, why didn’t the Romans or Jews just show people the full tomb and dead body? And again, they clearly taught (and died for) the truth that Jesus physically rose.
It, therefore, does not fit historically that what the disciples saw was only Jesus’ spirit or a ghost.
3. The Disciples Experienced Hallucinations
This is a theory that became more popular once people started seeing the silliness in the stolen body theory. But this too is unlikely.
First, physiologists now acknowledge that there have been no documented cases of mass hallucinations. They just don’t happen. One person can have a hallucinatory experienced, and then another to have somewhat of a similar experience. But hallucinations are personal in one’s own brain. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that somehow the disciples were all on the same hallucinatory drug. Even if so, they wouldn’t have all seen the exact same thing like they said they did when they saw the risen Jesus multiple times. Their hallucinations would be personal, unique, and quite different from one another. And again, remember, they all died for this.
Second, this option still leaves us with the problem of the body itself. Was it stolen? How—with the Roman soldiers? Who—did each of the the disciples then die for a lie?
It, therefore, does not fit historically that the disciples all saw the same hallucination.
4. They Went to the Wrong Tomb
This is probably the simplest option to explain the empty tomb, but it easily unravels.
First, if they—either the women or the disciples, it doesn’t really matter—went to the wrong tomb, then they still would be lying about the appearances. If so, we’re back to point one.
Second, if they went to the wrong tomb, the Romans and Jews could’ve easily just shown the full tomb and dead body. But this never happened.
It, therefore, does not fit historically that the women or the disciples simply went to the wrong tomb.
5. Jesus Never Died
With the various options above covered, many (including Muslim’s—which we’ll cover in a second) go with this route: Jesus never died on the cross. But this is equally as weak historically.
First, the Romans were masters of crucifixion. As we all know from history classes, Romans were brutal warriors. They knew how to kill. Particularly, they knew how to crucify. As with all their crucifixions, they’d be masters at making sure Jesus died.
Second, let’s even say that by some crazy event the Romans didn’t fully kill Jesus. This equally doesn’t work: If this were the case, Jesus would nothave looked like someone who raised from the dead three days later. Instead, he would’ve looked like someone who was crucified, nearly died, laid in a tomb for 48 hours, somehow survived those 48 hours without any medicine, and then somehow got out. In this case, we’re back to the disciples lying about his resurrection body and appearances. He would not have looked resurrected! And now, we’re back to point one, with the disciples dying for something they know isn’t true.
But some say that Jesus never died because Jesus was never crucified. Instead, they hold it was someone else up there on the cross. This is the Muslim position: they hold Judas, not Jesus, was crucified. But this is farfetched to say the least. Think about it: Jesus was famous after preaching for three years, and the Jewish leaders desperately wanted Jesus killed. Could they really have missed someone else dying on the cross? Moreover, Jesus went through multiple trials—both with the Jews and Romans. Do you really think that whole time it was Judas and no one noticed? Or if it was Jesus who went through the trials but then Judas who was hanged, would no one have noticed? Finally, if it was Judas up there, then at least the disciples would’ve noticed the difference—they knew well both Judas and Jesus!—and now we’re back to point one, with them knowing that Jesus was never crucified (nor risen), and now they’re lying about it all again.
It, therefore, does not fit historically that Jesus of Nazareth either a) never fully died on the cross, or b) wasn’t the one who was crucified.
6. Jesus of Nazareth Physically Rose from the Dead
This brings us to the final sixth option. What historically happened to Jesus? He died on the cross, was laid in a tomb, and then there was an empty tomb because he rose from the dead. This isn’t a Christian leap of faith, there’s weighty historical proof for this.
First, the disciples died saying this man truly rose from the dead. See point #1 above for why this is substantial.
Second, not only the disciples, but many others started believing this. There must have been strong evidence for it. In 1 Corinthians 15:6, the apostle Paul says that Jesus appears to more than 500 people, and that many of these people were still alive when Paul was writing 1 Corinthians! So, Paul’s essentially telling these Corinthians that they can go ask others about it. Many saw him rise.
Third, this explains why this sect became so revolutionary, even leading many to confess unto death. It didn’t just resonate spiritually—although it certainly does—but factually and historically as well.
Fourth, this is why so many of the Jewish people became Christians. The overwhelming majority of early Christians were originally followers of Judaism. So, what in the world would convince them to change? What would convince them to stop sacrificing in the temple? This is a huge change. What would convince them to change from being strict monotheists to believing that Jesus was God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14)? What would make them start saying that their awaited Messiah died on the cross (something they never expected)? What would persuade them to change their Sabbath day from Saturday to Sunday? Answer: the historical resurrection of Jesus and the compelling truths of his gospel.
Fifth, don’t let anyone tell you that Christianity gained steam because people wanted power. We address this a bit above, but it’s a silly argument. Poorly researched conspiracy movies like Zeitgeist propagate such positions, but it’s just not true. Christianity was not the religion of Rome until 325 A.D. This means for literally 300 years after Christ (that’s a long time!) Christians were in no realm of power. In fact, under many Roman emperors they were being killed. So again, why would this faith take over the world like it has? It was not to gain power. They didn’t have political power for hundreds of years. Instead, the answer: the historical resurrection of Jesus and the compelling truths about the gospel.
He Died and then Came Back to Life
So, it makes the most sense, we have virtually no other option, and we believe what has been taught for thousands of years: Jesus of Nazareth historically lived, died, was buried, and then rose three days later.
What then do we do with this—with him? We learn about him. We listen to him. We pay attention to who he says he is. We hear what he says he did for us:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd…I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I Lay it down of my own accord.I have authority to lay it down again, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:11, 15-18).
And he did it. Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh. He lived a perfect life. He died on the cross in the place of his people. He rose from the grave. He reigns right now. And he’s gong to come back someday to make everything right again. This is the good news. It is this resurrected Jesus—this Jesus who in history came back to life after being dead—we trust.