Section 3: Reasons to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the center of everything in the Bible, and it is the cornerstone of the Christian worldview.
If the resurrection is true, the Bible and everything else Jesus said is also true. Therefore, if the resurrection is true, then life has purpose and meaning beyond anything we could otherwise imagine.
So how can anyone prove that Jesus rose from the dead?
The only acceptable way to “prove” that something happened is by eyewitness testimony and evidence. In courts of law, we talk to people who saw the events in question, and we look at evidence that those events happened. The resurrection of Jesus is subject to the same tests.
In the ancient world, if you have two sources for something, that’s a pretty good argument that it happened. That’s pretty rare.
For Jesus’ resurrection, we have direct written eyewitness testimony from at least 6 sources who saw and testified and lived the rest of their lives in the belief that they saw Jesus risen from the dead.
That doesn’t count all the people who were said to have seen Jesus risen from the dead who contributed to the massive growth of Christianity in the years immediately after Jesus’ death.
If you counted the first church leaders and members, the number of people who devoted their lives to the belief that Jesus rose from the dead based on eyewitness testimony could easily be counted in the thousands.
If we had that kind of testimony for any event today, or for any other historical event for that matter, we would accept it without a doubt. But because Jesus’ resurrection is outside of what we think is possible, we often ignore the evidence.
But let’s look at the evidence from the early eyewitnesses.
How do we know Jesus existed?
Bart Ehrman, an agnostic historian and professor at the University of North Carolina, once said, “I don’t think there’s any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus.”[i]
He went on to say, “There are a lot of people who want to write sensational books and make a lot of money who say Jesus didn’t exist, but I don’t know any serious scholar who doubts the existence of Jesus.”
In another setting, Ehrman (who again, is agnostic) said, “There is no scholar in any college or university in the western world who teaches classics, ancient history, New Testament, early Christianity, (or) any related field, who doubts that Jesus existed.”[ii]
Those are powerful words. The fact is, Jesus is abundantly attested in early, independent sources, and even skeptical historians like Bart Ehrman concede that.
Ehrman says if you’re going to have a different opinion, you better have a pretty good piece of evidence yourself. He says atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism because it makes them look foolish to the outside world.
Some people insist on reaching desperately by claiming that Jesus didn’t exist, but they do so with no evidence whatsoever to back up such a claim. Between Bart Ehrman’s statements and the abundance of evidence that will follow in this book, we can rest assured that Jesus of Nazareth did, in fact, exist.
Is the eyewitness testimony reliable?
The most important thing to consider in any case is eyewitness testimony. Who saw the event in question actually happen? If you have people who saw it happen, no matter how unlikely it is, courts will say that’s enough to be confident beyond a reasonable doubt.
In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, there were many people who saw it. So, the most important question is: Can we rely on the testimony of the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection? Let’s look at some possible objections to the reliability of the early eyewitness testimony that said Jesus rose from the dead.
How do we know that the testimony of Jesus rising from the dead isn’t just a myth that evolved over time?
Some people claim that the New Testament was written a long time after Jesus’ death and therefore is simply mythology that developed over time. If that’s true, then the stories of Jesus are simply embellishments that evolved through centuries of wishful thinking.
I personally believed this for a while, but there are some serious problems with this idea, and I’ve found that most people who believe this do not base their objection on facts.
The truth of the matter is, the Gospels are dated much too early to be mythology.
Even by critical scholars, the Gospels are dated to have been written between AD 70 and AD 95. That’s a critical, late date, and it’s still only 40-65 years after the events occurred. Even that critical date is still within the lifetimes of people who would have been able to refute the story. Myths don’t develop that fast. It takes hundreds of years – multiple generations – for mythology to develop.
But there’s good evidence that shows the Gospels were written much earlier than the amount of time it would take for a myth to take root.
Cold Case Christianity Method
The New Testament Does Not Describe the Destruction of the Temple[iii]
The New Testament does not mention the siege of Jerusalem in the late 60s AD or the fall of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. These were monumental events in ancient history that might be considered similar to the modern-day 9/11 attack or Pearl Harbor. Yet the New Testament, which includes an abundance of historical details throughout, never once mentions this huge event in Jewish history.
Considering the fact that Jesus predicted the fall of the temple in the book of Matthew, it would only make sense for the writers to mention it if that prediction had actually happened at the time of their writing. Instead, no New Testament document mentions it.
The only explanation for this is that these books were written before all of that happened.
Luke Did Not Mention the Deaths of Paul, Peter, and James
Paul was the main character in the book of Acts, and Acts ends with Paul being under house arrest in Rome. Writings from early church fathers tell us that Paul died in the 60s AD during persecution from Emperor Nero.
Peter was also martyred shortly after Paul in the AD 60s. While Luke wrote extensively about Paul and Peter in the book of Acts and featured them prominently, he said nothing about their deaths. After all, Paul was still alive (under house arrest in Rome) at the end of the book of Acts.
So, the logical conclusion is that Acts was written before Paul and Peter died. That puts Acts as being written before the 60s AD.
James was also killed in the city of Jerusalem in the 60s AD, and his execution is also absent from the biblical account, even though Luke described the deaths of Stephen (Acts 7:54–60) and James, the brother of John (Acts 12:1–2).
Acts was part two of a two-part series from Luke, and part one was what we know as the Gospel of Luke. Acts starts out with reference to the first writing, Luke’s gospel, which means the Gospel of Luke must have been written before the 60s AD as well.
Paul Quoted Luke’s Gospel in His Letter to Timothy and in his letter to the Corinthians
Paul appeared to be aware of Luke’s gospel when he quoted it in his letter to Timothy around AD 63–64. Paul said:
For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17–18)
In the above verse, Paul quotes two passages as “Scripture” – one in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament.
The line that says “the laborer is worthy of his wages” points back to Luke 10:7. So we can clearly see that Luke’s gospel must have been common knowledge and considered Scripture, at least to Paul, by the AD 60s.
Paul also shows familiarity with Luke’s gospel in his letter to the Corinthian church nearly ten years earlier than his letter to Timothy. Here’s what Paul said:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood.” (1 Corinthians 11:23–25)
Luke 22:19-20 says essentially the same thing:
And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.
Luke’s gospel is the only one that says, “do this in remembrance of me.” So again, Paul seems to be quoting Luke’s gospel. Where else would he have gotten the exact same words Luke used? Either way, either Luke’s gospel or the source of Luke’s gospel information clearly predates Paul’s messages to the churches he planted, which was at least in the AD 60s.
Luke Quoted Mark and Matthew Repeatedly
Luke admitted at the beginning of his own gospel that he was not an eyewitness to the life and ministry of Jesus. Instead, Luke described himself as a person who was simply collecting information from eyewitnesses:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1–4)
Because of the nature of Luke’s purpose, research, and writing, Luke often repeated or quoted entire passages from the gospels of Mark and Matthew.
In fact, Luke quoted about 350 verses from Mark and about 250 verses from Matthew.
The logical conclusion is that Mark’s account was already written and available to Luke prior to writing his own gospel. If Luke’s gospel was written in the 60’s AD or earlier, then that places Mark’s gospel as being written even earlier than that.
Based on these facts, we can piece together an estimated timeline for when the stories of Jesus’ resurrection began circulating:
- The deaths of Paul, Peter, and James were all in the AD 60s, and the destruction of the temple was in AD 70. None of the events are mentioned in the book of Acts despite the fact that Acts is all about Paul, Peter, and James’ work and despite the fact that the destruction of the temple was the most significant event in Jewish culture at that time. This leads us to conclude that Acts must have been written before the AD 60s.
- The book of Acts was the second part of Luke’s writing. The first part was the Gospel of Luke, which means Luke’s gospel was written before the AD 60s.
- Paul quoted Luke’s gospel in his letters written in the AD 50s, so the Gospel of Luke must have been written by that time.
- Luke’s gospel quotes the Gospel of Mark repeatedly, so Mark’s gospel must have been around before the AD 50s.
- That puts the earliest gospel account we know of today – the Gospel of Mark – as being written by no later than the late AD 40s or early 50s. Jesus died in the AD 30s, so that means the story of Jesus’ resurrection was circulating within a decade of his death.
Skeptics typically date Mark’s gospel to around 70 AD. Anything earlier than that implies that miracles are possible due to the fact that Jesus predicted the fall of the temple, and it fell in AD 70. So, the non-Christian worldview must start its timeline after the temple fell, or they admit that it’s true. It’s interesting how that works.
The truth is, either Matthew, Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude were all lying when they wrote their books of the New Testament – either they were all in on the same giant pointless conspiracy and dedicated their lives to it without faltering – or they were simply telling what they had seen and heard.
I personally think the latter makes more sense.
Minimal Facts Argument
Here’s another way to tell that the New Testament was written early and wasn’t a myth that developed over time. This research comes from Dr. Gary Habermas.[iv]
Many skeptics critique the Gospels, but they generally like Paul’s writings and think he’s a good source because:
He was an authority, a scholar, a Jewish leader and teacher, he was in the right place at the right time, he knew the apostles, he persecuted the church, he was a brilliant man, and he was honest.
Of Paul’s writings, critics generally agree on 7 of the 13 books that bear his name: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.
Most skeptical scholars will acknowledge that 1 Corinthians and Galatians were both letters written by Paul in the 50s AD. Based solely on 1 Corinthians chapter 15 and Galatians chapters 1 & 2, we can see that the belief that Jesus rose from the dead was a very early belief.
1 Corinthians chapter 15 says:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
This was written in the 50s AD. Apparently, this is the message Paul was using when he started the church in Corinth, and he must have used the same message when he started the other churches (like the church in Galatia), because he started the churches in Corinth and in Galatia around the same time (early 50s AD according to Acts and based on the fact that Paul wrote letters to both churches around the same time in the mid-50s AD).
Then, in the book of Galatians, Paul gives us a timeline of what happened after his conversion, and he gives us an idea as to when and how he got the message he was spreading (the “Gospel”).
Paul basically says this:
He was converted when Jesus appeared to him (post-resurrection) while he (Paul) was on his way to persecute Christians. Then he says he waited a few years before consulting with anyone about the revelation he had.
So, 3 years after his experience with Jesus, he went to Jerusalem to interview Peter (the Greek word used by Paul means to gain knowledge by visiting).
Then, 14 years later, he went back to Jerusalem to double-check the gospel he had been spreading and was told that everything was still good with his message. So, he went out to spread the gospel among the Gentiles (see Galatians chapters 1 and 2).
Do the math. If Paul wrote Galatians and 1 Corinthians in the AD 50s, and we work that timeline backward, here’s our timeline:
- Mid 50s AD: Paul wrote 1 Corinthians and Galatians
- Sometime before Paul wrote Galatians in the 50s: Paul double-checks the gospel in Jerusalem to make sure nothing had changed in the message they were sharing
- 14 years prior to that (at least 40 AD, probably earlier) – Paul visits Jerusalem and interviews Peter before starting to spread the good news. Where else would he have gotten the message of Jesus’ resurrection that he was preaching when he began starting churches in the years after this meeting with Peter?
So, Paul was traveling and preaching the message that Jesus rose from the dead, and he tells us in Galatians (written in the AD 50s) that he got that message at least 14 years prior to him writing his letter to the Galatians.
At the very least, we’re back at the news of Jesus rising from the dead being spread within a decade or so of Jesus’ death.
If Paul checked his original message with James and Peter, that means they had it before Paul had it, which means this creed goes back even before Paul’s receiving it. The creed Paul recites in 1 Corinthians (which he said he also received) was in a standardized form in Greek when Paul received it, and it would have taken a while to put eyewitness testimony in a standardized form. Now we’re almost all the way back to the event of Jesus’ death.
So, James and Peter had a testimony, and they standardized it into a creed that was easier to remember. Paul hears it and then passes this creed along to the church in Corinth in 51-52 AD.
Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians that his initial revelation came from God, and the information he was sharing (about Jesus rising from the dead) was double-checked by Peter and James on two occasions over the course of 14 years.
The letters to the Corinthians and to the Galatians were written in the 50s AD. That tells us that Paul’s beliefs of the resurrected Jesus – which he apparently had been carrying around for a long time – were given to him within just a few years of the cross.
James D.G. Dunn, one of the most established historical Jesus scholars in the world, says that the latest this standardized creed form could have come about is months after the cross.
Larry Hurtado, another scholar, says that it came out in that standardized form just days after the cross. And why not? It was the central Christian message, and they needed it in a form that would make it easy for illiterate people to remember. After all, many sociologists of religion believe that up to 90% of Jesus’ audience was illiterate. Illiterate people can remember a song or a hymn because it’s in a form that’s easy to remember. That’s how early creeds were structured.
So, as soon as Jesus died in 30 AD, these 3 facts were there:
- Jesus died
- He was raised from the dead
- And he’s God in human form
Here’s a more exact timeline, according to Habermas:
- 55 AD – Paul wrote 1 Corinthians
- 51 AD – Paul preached at Corinth
- 35 AD – Paul met Peter and James in Jerusalem (Peter must have gotten this empty tomb idea from somewhere so soon after Jesus’ death. The Gospels say he was an eyewitness along with hundreds of other people.)
- 32 AD – Paul converted – Jesus appears to him
- 30 AD – Jesus died on the cross
No matter what the exact dates are, the implication is huge: Within just a few years of Jesus’ death, Paul was preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to several eyewitnesses. No matter how you spin it, the message of Jesus’ resurrection started early. It wasn’t a myth that evolved over time.
But let’s go with a critical view for a moment and say that it did take 10 years or so for the message to start spreading. Do you remember what happened 10-20 years ago? Of course. I do, too.
Imagine someone telling you that there was a man in your city who could fly, and he did so in the year 2000 (about 20 years ago). It would be very easy to check this claim, being that you lived in the area during that time and would probably know plenty of people you could ask to corroborate or refute the story. Plus, the story going around in this example (and in the case of the resurrection of Jesus) isn’t an ordinary one. It isn’t exactly something people could have missed. If someone were doing something as amazing as what you’re told, you would have some idea as to whether or not this was true.
Add commitment to the mix (the truth of the resurrection meant giving your life to this belief), and now people would be much more incentivized to investigate the validity of these claims. And they would have easily been able to do so.
That was the scenario in Jerusalem and all Judea after Jesus died, and yet the idea that Jesus rose from the dead spread like wildfire over the next decade and throughout the following century. That only happens if people have strong evidence to lean on, which they obviously did. The bottom line is, the New Testament was written right after the events happened, and myths can’t develop that quickly.
Chain of Custody: Further Evidence that the Gospel Didn’t Change Over Time
Here’s what J. Warner Wallace of Cold Case Christianity calls the New Testament chain of custody:[v]
- Jesus’ ministry was around 30-33 AD.
- John followed Jesus and wrote the Gospel of John.
- Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias were students of John that became church leaders, and we have their letters and writings.
- Irenaeus was another church leader after Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias, and we have his writings as well.
- Hippolytus (around AD 200) came after Irenaeus, and we have his writings, too.
For all of these church leaders, we have several books worth of writings, and they all tell the same basic facts as the Gospels. And there are other chains of custody for Paul’s and Peter’s writing as well.
What’s important to note is that these 3 eyewitnesses – Paul, John, and Peter – and their students were in 3 different geographical regions (Rome for Paul, Asia Minor or Ephesus for John, and North Africa for Peter).
If you lost the entire New Testament and only had the writings of the first “officers” in the chain of custody, here’s what you would know about Jesus:
- Born of a virgin
- Worked miracles
- Preached sermons
- Claimed to be God
- Was worshipped as God
- Was crucified and buried
- Rose from the dead
- Ascended into Heaven
- By faith alone you are saved
And you get all of that just from the writings that were being passed down from the time of the eyewitnesses until the time of the church councils in AD 363 when the New Testament canon was officially established.
So, the message of the Gospel – that Jesus rose from the dead – started early and didn’t change over time.
Whether you choose to believe that the message of Jesus’ resurrection started spreading via the Gospels immediately after Jesus’ death or 50 years later, the truth remains the same:
Several eyewitnesses claimed and lived by the fact that they saw Jesus resurrected.
Whichever way you choose to believe, keep this in mind:
Memoirs of World War 2 weren’t done until the 1990s (50 years after the fact). Were they liars?
What about Alexander the Great? According to Dr. Habermas, the earliest good source we have for Alexander is 350 years after his death (he died in 330 BC). The two best biographies on him didn’t come until 425-450 years after his death.
Writing takes time, especially in a culture where the written word is not the primary means of mass communication. Not many people could read or write in Jesus’ time, so why rush to write a book about something you saw?
So, whether you believe it’s 2 years or 50 years, the facts remain the same, and the proof is still just as evident.
Aren’t the copies we have of the New Testament and the Gospels from much later?
Christians typically say that there are 25,000 New Testament manuscripts, but skeptics sometimes point out that the vast majority of those manuscripts came centuries later. They might also claim that we actually don’t have many manuscripts at all from the first few centuries after Jesus’ death.
The thing is, no matter how many early manuscripts there are (and there are plenty of them), we have the letters from the early church fathers written in the early 2nd-century (still within 100 years of Jesus’ death) that quote almost the entire New Testament.
These were letters that were written and handed down meticulously for each new generation from the time of Jesus’ death, and the central message is the same. We don’t see the “telephone game” happening (the game where kids whisper something to the kid sitting next to them and the message is passed along in that manner until it goes all the way around the room only to find that the message is completely different at the end). The whisper game effect involves speaking at very low levels – that’s what makes it funny. The gospel spread loudly and clearly, and historical documents show that it didn’t change.
And all of this is really irrelevant because we know from early non-Christian sources that the Christian church was spreading like crazy within just a few years of Jesus’ death, and we know that their primary belief was that Jesus rose from the dead.
The answer to this objection is that we do have a ton of writing from early manuscripts, but we also have writings from 1st and 2nd-century church leaders, and we have writings from non-Christian sources all within one century of Jesus’ death that all corroborate the New Testament Gospels.
And even if we didn’t have that abundant amount of early information, we would still have the fact that the Christian church exploded to the point where the Roman emperor himself was persecuting Christians just 30 years after Jesus’ death.
So, the question we can’t avoid is: Why did all those people believe Jesus rose from the dead immediately after His death?
Even if we have early manuscripts, how do we know they’re not just fiction literature?
The disciples devoted their lives to spreading the message that Jesus rose from the dead. As we’ve already covered, Paul’s letters from the AD 50s show us that.
Some skeptics might say, “More manuscripts at best increase our confidence that we have the original version. That doesn’t mean the original copy was history — just like the original copy of The Wizard of Oz or the Arthurian legends wouldn’t be a record of history.”
The problem with that line of thinking is that people didn’t instantly dedicate their lives to either of those pieces of fictional literature. They did instantly start following Jesus as the risen Son of God. That speaks volumes for what people thought about the gospel.
Christianity spread rapidly in the Roman empire. Non-Christian historical sources tell us that the Roman emperor, Emperor Nero, was persecuting Christians in Rome in the AD 60s. These people were burned alive for holding their beliefs about Jesus, so that shows us that they obviously believed that Jesus’ resurrection was a real historical event – not fiction.
Maybe the eyewitnesses hallucinated.
To say that the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection hallucinated goes 100% against everything science and psychology know about hallucinations.
Hallucinations happen to individuals, not groups. They’re not contagious. The eyewitnesses were groups of people, men and women, indoors and outdoors, believers and non-believers, etc. On top of that, they heard and saw Jesus, so that would have to be auditory and visual hallucinations at the same time, which are even rarer.
Not to mention, the Gospels say that Mary touched Jesus, Jesus ate with multiple people and broke bread with them, and He told Thomas and the other disciples to touch His wounds if they didn’t believe Him, which implies they also touched Jesus.
So, you’ve got 3 types of hallucinations happening at the same time to groups of people in all different scenarios and all different mindsets. That completely goes against current scientific knowledge of hallucinations.
Let’s look at this a bit closer for a moment:
- Mary saw Jesus.
- Peter saw Jesus.
- James saw Jesus.
- Paul saw Jesus, and he had no reason at all to want to see Jesus.
- The 2 disciples saw Jesus on the road to Emmaus.
- The women (more than one) at the tomb saw Jesus.
- 10 disciples without Thomas saw Jesus.
- 11 disciples (with Thomas) saw Jesus again.
- They also all saw Jesus at the mountaintop in Matthew 28
- They saw Jesus at His ascension in Luke 24
- 7 of those disciples saw Jesus while they were fishing, too.
- Paul says that 500 people saw Jesus at one time.
More than one person saw Jesus at the same time. Group dreams are not a real thing; that’s called a memory of something that actually happened.
Then, if you wanted to falsify this in 1st-century Jerusalem, all you would have to do is check the tomb for Jesus’ body. Yet no one produced Jesus’ body.
Hallucinations are described by the medical community as something that occurs as a result of some type of psychological disorder, drug use, sleep deprivation, or some type of medical cause such as tumors, fevers, disorders, etc.
In a study of 31,000 “normal” people (people without known disorders) from 18 different countries, only 5% or so of them had experienced at least one hallucination, and only about 3-4% of them reported having experienced more than one hallucination.[vi], [vii]
Of the total 31,000 people in the study, only 1.6% of them said they experienced more than one type of hallucination or delusion.
If you multiply the 4% of people who experienced more than one hallucination by the 1.6% of people who experienced more than one type of hallucination (audible, visual, delusional, etc.), you will get a tiny, tiny percentage of people who fall in both categories, and that’s including both hallucinations and delusions.
How likely is it then, medically speaking, that at LEAST 13 people saw AND heard Jesus alive in different times, places, and environments?
Some of them touched Jesus as well, so that adds another layer of improbability for hallucinations as an explanation. Plus, as far as we know from ancient writings, none of those people showed signs of being on drugs or having any medical disorders. Therefore, claiming that the disciples hallucinated is farfetched at best.
Maybe the eyewitnesses lied.
If the eyewitnesses of the resurrection lied, why would they dedicate their lives to a lie and then travel around spreading a major movement suffering tremendous hardships in the process? After all, they claimed to have seen the resurrection firsthand, which means they would have known whether or not what they were saying was a lie.
The idea that the disciples lied makes zero sense.
They gained nothing by spending their lives spreading the gospel.
They were excommunicated from the synagogue; then, they were beaten, tortured, and killed.
That’s not exactly appealing.
In fact, they had every reason to say the resurrection did not happen.
Sure, some of them had a certain level of authority because of their positions, but that authority was really more of a target on their heads than anything.
Most of us struggle with dedicating our lives to causes we know are good, so how likely do you think it is that the 1st-century disciples of Jesus were willing to dedicate their lives to something they knew was false?
People do really stupid things for fame, but not many people are willing to give up their entire life to legitimately suffer both physically and mentally to the point of public ridicule and death for a brief amount of moderate fame.
And there’s not a single source saying the disciples lived anything other than lives of deprivation as a result of their testimonies.
Plus, to pull off a conspiracy of this magnitude, there would need to be a level of sophistication that a rag-tag bunch of 1st-century blue-collared workers weren’t likely to possess.
A lie of that magnitude was simply too bold of a claim, too close in proximity to the events in question, too elaborate, too risky, and too reward-less to make any sense. The evidence for a conspiracy just isn’t there.
According to J. Warner Wallace, conspiracies require:
- A small number of conspirators – There were at least 11 of them who would have known the truth.
- A short conspiracy timespan – The gospel spread for decades after the death of Jesus.
- Excellent communication between co-conspirators – They were separated by thousands of miles.
- Strong familial relationships – They were mostly men from all walks of life. Most of them were not family and had no real motivation to lie for each other. Why would they be willing to suffer and potentially die for someone they barely knew if it was all a lie?
- Little or no pressure to confess – They got all kinds of pressure. They were beaten and persecuted for what they said they believed.
Yet not one of the eyewitnesses ever recanted his or her testimony.
Not to mention, the disciples said that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. At this time in history, women could testify in hearings, but they weren’t considered to be as reliable as men. If you’re going to lie about something as huge as Jesus resurrecting from the dead in 1st-century Jerusalem, putting women as your primary witnesses of the initial event isn’t the smartest thing you could do.
Now, be realistic for a moment. Why would they want to lie? There was no motive. They gained nothing from it. And it’s ridiculous to think they would be able to pull off a lie that big even if they wanted to.
Why would they die for something they knew was a lie?
Some skeptics say that plenty of people die for their beliefs, so there’s nothing special about the fact that the disciples died for theirs. That doesn’t make it true.
Here’s the difference: People die all the time for things they’re told are true, but they don’t willingly die for what they know is a lie.
What makes the New Testament unique is that the early groups of eyewitnesses would have been in the position to actually know whether or not the resurrection was a lie.
Martyrs die all the time, but they give their life for something they believe to be true based on what other people have told them. The early disciples suffered and died for something that was based on what they claimed to have actually seen and experienced for themselves.
Peter, John, James, Paul, and others lived lives of suffering and ultimately died for what they claimed to have seen firsthand, not something they were told.
They were in a unique position to actually know if what they were suffering for was the truth or a lie. That’s the best evidence you can get.
Muslim martyrs, for example, have no evidence that they’ll receive their reward for sacrificing themselves. They die for what they believe to be true, but they have no way of knowing whether or not they’re wrong. The early disciples did. They knew if they were telling the truth or not, and they hung their hat on what they saw with their own eyes.
People typically want to know if there are “non-Christian” writers outside the New Testament that tell us about Jesus. The answer is yes, but that’s really an irrelevant question. What makes “non-Christian” writers more trustworthy than Christian eyewitnesses? Their testimony is all-the-more powerful because they saw it firsthand.
If you say the Christian writers were biased, then what were they biased against? What reason did they have to lie about Jesus rising from the dead? What did they gain? Nothing.
Think about it. If Jesus was really who He said He was, shouldn’t everyone who came into contact with Him be “biased”?
After all, if the people who were around Him were able to walk away “unbiased,” what would that say about Jesus’ authenticity?
That’s like saying you can’t get directions to Alaska from people who have been to Alaska because they’re biased. The truth is, everyone is biased. Jews that survived the Holocaust were DEFINITELY biased, but that didn’t make their testimony any less true.
If anything, the testimony of early Christians should be much more valuable, because they had everything to lose by claiming that Jesus rose from the dead. They literally gained nothing by making those claims, yet everything we know about their lives tells us they never once recanted their testimonies.
When it comes to authenticity, if you find something embarrassing to the author in the text, the chances are higher that it’s not going to be invented. After all, not many people lie to make themselves look bad. The New Testament documents are filled with embarrassing details about the authors and even about Jesus.
The disciples depict themselves as dimwitted by failing to understand what Jesus is saying in His teachings. They are careless. They fall asleep on Jesus twice when He needs them the most. They make no effort to give Jesus a proper burial after His death. Instead, they let a Jewish leader (the ones who had Jesus killed in the first place) bury Jesus while they ran away and hid.
They are rebuked by Jesus on multiple occasions. At one point, Jesus calls Peter the devil (Mark 8:33), then Jesus has to rebuke and correct the disciples repeatedly for various reasons.
Why make themselves look bad if they’re making all this up?
They are cowards. Peter denied Christ 3 times. The disciples all run away when Jesus is killed, and the women are the brave ones. As we’ve discussed, in that culture, a woman’s testimony was not on par with that of a man, yet all 4 Gospels say the women were the first witnesses.
They are doubters. Despite being taught several times that Jesus was going to rise from the dead, they are still doubtful when they hear of His resurrection. Some are even doubtful after they see Him risen.
Jesus’ own family thought He was out of His mind (Mark 3:21, 31). Why put this kind of thing in the Bible if they’re embellishing Him as God?
Jesus was deserted by many of His followers. In John, chapter 6, Jesus tells His disciples they must eat His flesh and drink His blood (metaphorically), and many disciples deserted Him after that. Why would they even mention this potentially odd and awkward exchange about eating flesh and drinking blood if it’s made up?
Jesus was not believed by His own brothers (John 7:5). James, Jesus’ brother, later died as a martyr, but he didn’t believe Jesus while He was alive.
Jesus is thought to be a deceiver (John 7:12). He turns Jewish believers off to the point where they want to stone Him (John 8:30-59). Jesus is called a “madman” (John 10:20), a “drunkard” (Matthew 11:19), and “demon-possessed” (Mark 3:22, John 7:20, 8:48)
Jesus has His feet wiped with the hair of a prostitute (Luke 7:36-39). This could have easily been seen as a sexual advance. There are also 2 prostitutes in Jesus’ bloodline.
Jesus is crucified despite the fact that anyone who was hung on a tree was under God’s curse, according to the Jewish Scriptures (Deuteronomy 21:23). If you’re making up a Messiah to the Jews, it wouldn’t be wise to tell everyone that He hung on a tree.
The word “excruciating” literally means “out of the crucifixion.” The people who were in a position to know whether or not Jesus rose from the dead lived brutal lives and died excruciating deaths. They could have spared themselves all of that by simply saying that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, but they didn’t. Instead, they held their beliefs, and they even went so far as to change their sacred religious traditions.
Here’s what they believed before Christ:
- Animal sacrifice
- Binding Law of Moses
- Strict Monotheism
- The Sabbath
- Conquering Messiah
Here’s what they believed after Christ:
- Christ’s sacrifice
- Christ’s life
- Sunday Worship (no more Sabbath rules)
- Sacrificial Messiah
- Baptism and Communion
What could have caused these New Testament writers, who were all Jews who already believed they had a relationship with God, to change all of these things virtually overnight?
It can only be explained by what psychologists call an “impact event.”
An impact event is an event that is so
significant that we can vividly remember details about that event, and that
experience ultimately shapes our lives. The apostles must have experienced an
impact event to make them change everything so dramatically.
Maybe they were wrong. Maybe Jesus didn’t die.
Some people believe that Jesus didn’t actually die from crucifixion. After all, Jesus did die in a seemingly short amount of time after being put on the cross. But let’s look at the facts.
Before going to the cross, Luke wrote that Jesus prayed so intensely that he started sweating blood. This confused everyone at the time. Some early writers even tried to skip over this when they wrote about it. As it turns out, however, this is actually a medical condition called psychogenic hematidrosis[viii], and we now have documented clinical cases where people have experienced this same thing.
Similarly, another initially confusing event is described in the Gospel of John just before the guards removed Jesus from the cross.
Before removing him from the cross, the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side, and John’s gospel (remember, John is a fisherman) says blood and water flowed out. Early church fathers wrote about this and were confused by it, so they made up all kinds of things to help explain it. However, this is actually a result of pleural effusion[ix], which is when water collects around the lower part of the lungs. This can be caused by trauma, among other things.
Jesus’ path to the cross was more brutal than most. He was beaten and tortured. They scourged him with a whip with nine tails that had rock or bone at the end. So, the fact that he died relatively quickly should come as no surprise.
In the 1st century, people buried their own, so they were familiar with dead bodies. When people die, their bodies get cold, they get stiff, and they bruise. This is not something that the people from Jesus’ time were very likely to have missed.
Not to mention the fact that in ancient history, we’re lucky if we have one or two sources to confirm a fact. But in the case of the execution of Jesus Christ, we have multiple early reports from the 1st century in the documents that make up the New Testament and in at least 5 ancient sources outside the Bible that all confirm His execution (Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Mara Bar Serapion, and The Jewish Talmud).
Maybe they were fooled by a fake resurrected Jesus.
In order to con someone, you have to know more about the topic than they do. In order to con the 12, someone would have to know more about Jesus than the 12, and who would know more about Jesus than them? That means it would have to be one of the 12 or someone close to them. To pretend to be Jesus resurrected, they would also have to perform miracles. As you can see, this theory falls apart pretty quickly.
Maybe they were influenced.
Maybe one of them saw a spiritual vision of Jesus and then convinced the others it actually happened. First of all, why would any of them do this just to live a life of suffering and discomfort for something they knew to be a lie? There was nothing to gain from this. But beyond the simple question of why, who could have had this kind of influence to convince everyone, and how could they have pulled off this level of deception among an already skeptical crowd?
Mary? She couldn’t even convince Peter, much less Thomas and the others. Plus, she was a woman, which didn’t bode well for her at this time in history.
Peter? He was seldom alone, and he didn’t have the first vision, Mary did. Did he tell Mary that she saw Jesus the day before he saw Jesus? That doesn’t make sense.
Paul? He didn’t have influence with the 12, and he came along after the fact.
And even if one of the disciples did have the desire and ability to pull off something as wild as that, it doesn’t explain Paul’s conversion and vision. Plus, if you were to ask someone like Peter what he saw in his “vision,” it would be detailed and vivid. But when he tells others and they tell other people, their descriptions aren’t going to be nearly as detailed or vivid, because it would have been Peter’s vision. However, the accounts in Scripture are from multiple sources, they contain extensive detail, and they all vary from one another slightly. That’s not something you can fake.
Then on top of it all, if you wanted to falsify this person’s vision, you would just need to check the tomb. If the tomb is empty, you’re back to a conspiracy theory.
It’s possible, but not reasonable.
Or maybe they were accurate.
This explains the evidence best.
However, it has strengths and weaknesses. It requires a resurrection, of course, and for naturalists, that’s impossible because of their presuppositions. Ask yourself, do you believe supernatural events are possible? You have to get past your presupposition that a resurrection can’t occur. Otherwise, all the evidence in the world won’t mean a thing, and you’ll find a way to get around truly believing in the resurrection.
Jesus either rose from the dead or He didn’t. Rejecting supernaturalism is the only barricade that will block you from going down the road that leads to the resurrection as a conclusion.
If the Bible is inspired and flawless, Jesus rose from the dead. If it’s slightly inspired with a few flaws, Jesus still rose from the dead. If the Bible’s not inspired at all, but it’s a fairly accurate history book, Jesus still rose from the dead. If the Bible is not inspired, not reliable, and not even a history book (basically just mythology), Jesus still rose from the dead.
matter how you feel about the Bible, Jesus still rose from the dead, which
means life has a purpose, and Christianity is true.
What other evidence is there for the resurrection besides eyewitness testimony?
The empty tomb
One particularly interesting piece of indirect evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is the lack of a body or shrine for Jesus despite the fact that He was and is the most famous person in human history.
Jesus was hands down the most impactful person to ever live, leaving a legacy of billions of followers and starting a movement that today nearly a third of the entire population of the world claims to follow. Yet we have no burial place for Him despite the early written records telling us where He was buried.
Let’s look at a few interesting points as to how we can be confident that Jesus’ tomb was empty.
The resurrection was preached in the same city where Jesus was buried.
Of all the places the message of Jesus’ resurrection could have been preached, Jerusalem would have been the worst if the disciples were lying.
The Gospels tell us the entire city was in an uproar over Jesus, and historians, religious leaders, and government officials alike took a keen interest in Jesus when He was alive. To go to the city where Jesus was killed publicly and announce that He wasn’t actually dead and that He had risen from the grave would have been crazy if His body was still in the place where it was laid.
The Gospels are very clear as to where Jesus’ body was buried, and with all the uproar and the spread of Christianity immediately after His death, it’s safe to assume that someone would have checked the grave.
At the very least, why preach the message of Jesus’ resurrection in the very city He was buried if you weren’t certain? That’s a recipe for death. Unless, of course, you know you’re right.
There were multiple accounts for the empty tomb.
The Bible doesn’t have just one source for the empty tomb; it has several. Several people wrote about it and even more saw it. The Gospels and Paul’s writings all mention the resurrection and empty tomb.
Dr. Gary Habermas says:
“Scholars think that there could be as many as three or four independent traditions in the Gospels, which very strongly increases the likelihood that the reports are both early and historical.”[x]
This is strong evidence because it tells us that this tradition did not arise from one person’s experience or perspective. Instead, it came from several different sources.
The earliest Jewish arguments against Christianity admit the empty tomb.
Matthew 28:11-15 tells us that the Jews attempted to refute Christianity by saying that the disciples stole the body.
The Jews did not deny the empty tomb. Their theory that someone stole the body ipso facto admitted that the tomb was empty.
The Toledot Yeshu, a compilation of early Jewish writings, is another source for this. It acknowledges that the tomb was empty and attempts to explain it away.
At least 5 ancient sources state that the Jews admitted the tomb was empty:
- Early accounts (Acts 13 and 1 Corinthians 15)
- The Jewish Book – Toledot Yeshu – refers to Jesus and says the tomb was empty but attempts to explain it away by saying His body was removed.
- Matthew, chapter 28
- Justin Martyr, an early church father, wrote in AD 150 about this teaching being spread.
- Tertullian, another early church father, wrote in AD 200 and confirmed what Justin Martyr had said 50 years earlier about the teaching of Jesus’ body being removed.
The empty tomb accounts originated within a few years of the event it narrates.
We’ve already discussed this at great length in previous sections of this book, but the point here is that the New Testament was written much too early in history to have told such a blatant lie if it were such.
The empty tomb is supported by the historical reliability of the burial story.
New Testament scholars agree that the burial story is one of the best-established facts about Jesus due partly to the Gospels identifying Joseph of Arimathea as the one who buried Jesus. Joseph was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin – a well-known and authoritative ruling class in Jewish society. Because they were well known, it would not be feasible for fictitious stories about them to spread without opposition. If the Christians were lying, they would have been exposed as frauds.
Jesus’ tomb was never venerated as a shrine.
The 1st-century custom was to set up a shrine at the site of a holy man’s bones, yet there was no such thing set up for Jesus. Since there was no such shrine for Jesus, and considering His fame that continued to grow in and around Jerusalem after His death, the obvious conclusion is that his bones weren’t there.
The tomb was discovered empty by women.
As we’ve discussed, in the 1st century, the testimony of women in Jewish culture was considered to be less valuable and trustworthy than men. So, if the empty tomb story was a legend, it would make sense for male disciples to have discovered it first. Yet women were the chief witnesses to the empty tomb in the Gospels, which means they actually were the first witnesses of the empty tomb.
The Jews and Romans had no motive to steal the body.
The Jews and Romans wanted to end Christianity and restore order. Removing Jesus’ body and leaving an empty tomb would not have helped them very much to that end. The disciples had no motive to remove the body, either. They were beaten, killed, and persecuted for preaching about the resurrection. Why would they go through that for a lie?
Author Matt Perman writes this about the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus[xi]:
What explanation, then, do the critics offer, you may ask? [William Lane] Craig tells us that “they are self-confessedly without any explanation to offer. There is simply no plausible natural explanation today to account for Jesus’ tomb being empty. If we deny the resurrection of Jesus, we are left with an inexplicable mystery.”
Because of the strong evidence for the empty tomb, most recent scholars do not deny it. D.H. Van Daalen has said, “It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions.” Jacob Kremer, who has specialized in the study of the resurrection and is a NT critic, has said “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb” and he lists twenty-eight scholars to back up his fantastic claim.
According to Dr. Gary Habermas, having two sources for information regarding an ancient historical event is very good.
There are at least 9 ancient non-Christian sources within 150 years of Jesus’ life – plus Jewish references after the fact – that all collectively mention Jesus, the apostles, and the events of the New Testament[xii]:
- Pliny the Younger
- Emperor Trajan
- Mara Bar Serapion
- Jewish religious documents
Add up all of these brief references to Jesus and the apostles, and you get a story that lines up cohesively with the stories about Jesus in the New Testament.
According to J. Warner Wallace, we can learn the following by reading from ancient non-Christian sources:
- Jesus was born and lived in Palestine.
- He was born, supposedly, to a virgin and had an earthly father who was a carpenter.
- He was a teacher who taught that through repentance and belief, all followers would become brothers and sisters.
- He led the Jews away from their beliefs.
- He was a wise man who claimed to be God and the Messiah. He had unusual magical powers and performed miraculous deeds.
- He was persecuted by the Jews for what He said, and He was betrayed.
- He was beaten with rods, forced to drink vinegar, & wore a crown of thorns.
- He was crucified on the eve of the Passover, and this crucifixion occurred under the direction of Pontius Pilate, during the time of Tiberius.
- On the day of His crucifixion, the sky grew dark, and there was an earthquake.
- He was buried in a tomb, and the tomb was later found to be empty.
- He appeared to His disciples resurrected from the grave and showed them His wounds.
- These disciples then told others Jesus was resurrected and ascended into Heaven.
- Jesus’ disciples and followers upheld a high moral code.
- The disciples were also persecuted for their faith but were martyred without changing their claims.
- They met regularly to worship Jesus, even after His death.
“Not bad, given this information is coming from ancient accounts hostile to the Biblical record. While these non-Christian sources interpret the claims of Christianity differently, they affirm the initial, evidential claims of the Biblical authors (much like those who interpret the evidence related to Kennedy’s assassination and the Twin Tower attacks come to different conclusions but affirm the basic facts of the historical events).”[xiii]
The explosion of the Christian movement after Jesus died
One of the most interesting and compelling pieces of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is the growth of the early Christian church.
Today and throughout history, movements have spread when an idea resonates with an audience and then delivers on what it promises. The “promise” offered by Christianity was that Jesus rose from the dead, and anyone who followed Him would see greater things than that. That’s a lofty promise, yet history shows us continued exponential growth of the movement immediately after Jesus’ death.
Rather than speculate about early church growth in terms of the numbers, let’s first look at the facts:
Christians were a large enough group by AD 64 (about 30 years after Jesus’ death) to be persecuted on a national level in the capital of the Roman Empire. Writings from an early-2nd-century historian named Tacitus tell us that the Roman emperor named Nero, who ruled from 37-68 AD, instituted state-wide persecution based on the belief that Christ-followers had started a giant fire that destroyed much of Rome (also corroborated by another Roman writer named Suetonius).[xiv]
The torture and hideous deaths of Christians described by Tacitus are appalling, but we can learn a few things from his report of this terrible time in history:
- Christianity had started in Judea and grown enough to move all the way to Rome within 30 years.
- There were enough Christians in Rome in AD 64 to persecute them on a large scale.
Tacitus calls Christians a “class” who were hated and labeled by the “populace.” He says after Jesus died, the movement “broke out” in Judaea and “even in Rome.”
This description from very early after Jesus’ death shows us that Christianity was a sizable and growing movement, and it was all based around the idea that Jesus rose from the dead.
People aren’t easily drawn into commitment, especially when what you’re offering involves committing your entire life to it, and especially when you’re claiming something as wild as a resurrection from the dead in the very city where this resurrection was said to have happened.
So, if you’re a first-century hearer of this message, why would you follow Christianity? The only explanation is that they saw and experienced something worth following – something that lived up to the incredible hype of a man rising from the dead.
The New Testament paints a picture of Jerusalem and the entire surrounding region as being in an uproar over Jesus. Jesus wasn’t a man operating in small circles and behind the scenes. He attracted huge crowds for years during His ministry, and He drew the attention of both Jewish and Roman leadership during His life. On a large scale, people knew about Jesus while He was alive, and something compelled them to believe that He rose from the dead.
The Bible says people in the area saw miracles from both Jesus and His followers, and it says large groups of people saw Him resurrected (hundreds, perhaps even the entire city). That’s the only explanation for such a large following after Jesus’ death.
People are typically very unwilling to experience rejection, discomfort, and pain for something that does not deliver instant personal gratification, yet this early group of Christ-followers jumped head-first into just that. They committed to something outlandish, selfless, and incomprehensible.
Other evidence from the early years of the Christian movement indicates the continued growth of the church, and of course, we know today that within just a few hundred years, Christianity grew from a hated sect to the official religion of Rome.
Think about it:
This all grew from people who heard a crazy story about a man rising from the dead in the same area they were from, and then they committed to believing it even though it meant they would be looked down on, despised, and abused in all forms because of their decision.
The only rational explanation is that something incredible convinced them.
Did Jesus claim to be God in human form, or did people just give him that label as wishful thinking?
Some say Jesus never meant to be known as God in human form, but instead, certain Jews placed that label on Him due to wishful thinking and the desire for a Messiah.
But there are a few problems with that theory. First, Jesus spoke as if He had the authority to forgive sins (Luke 7:48, Matthew 9:2, Mark 2:5, Luke 5:20).
Then there’s the fact that Jesus basically said He was God:
- John 10:30 – “I and the Father are one”
- John 8:58 – “Before Abraham was, I am”
- Matthew, Mark, and Luke – Jesus called Himself the “Son of Man” which is a reference to Daniel 7:13: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.”
Then consider how Jesus seemed to change religious law in an almost casual way:
- Matthew 15:11 – “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man”
- He healed on the Sabbath (Luke 13:16) despite it being forbidden.
Jesus performed miracles, and He said He cast out demons by the finger of God (Luke 11:20). He also said that his miracles of casting out demons signified the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus changed the terms of relating to God by called God “Abba,” which means Father, Daddy, or Papa. Mark 14:36 says, “Abba, Father […] everything is possible for you […]”
And all of this goes without stating the fact that all through the book of John, Jesus talks as if – and is talked about as – a deity. With all this considered, the answer to the question of whether or not Jesus claimed to be God is very clear. Jesus not only spoke as if He was God in human form, but His actions very clearly communicated the same thing.
What are we left with?
So now we’re left with very early reports (that Jesus rose from the dead) from people who all suffered and gave their lives for what they said they saw.
A lot of people give their lives for things, but people are only willing to die for what they genuinely believe to be true.
The disciples were in a position to know if what they believed was actually true. They claimed they actually saw the risen Jesus. If it wasn’t true, then they dedicated their lives to something they knew was a lie.
If a Christian missionary gives their life today, they’re dying for what Peter, John, Paul, James, and the other early disciples claimed to have seen.
But only Peter, John, Paul, James, and the other early disciples died for what they personally believed they saw firsthand.
See, giving your life doesn’t mean that something is true. But it does mean that you believe it’s true. The key is, they knew whether or not it was true, and they still willingly gave their lives.