So what about the resurrection of Jesus? It’s kind of important to the Christian faith (!!!) but did it really happen? Dead people normally stay dead. What evidence is there to support this crazy story?
In order to answer these questions, it’s worth remembering how reliable the gospels are as historical documents (see the article on ‘Evidence for the Reliability of the Gospels’). The best way to explore the evidence is probably to look at the three main theories put forward by sceptics to try and explain it all away...
One thing the gospels talk about is the empty tomb. This theory says that after Jesus was killed on the cross and then buried in the tomb, his disciples later came and stole the dead body and claimed that he had risen from the dead. There are several problems with this theory...
- Firstly, the Roman authorities saw this idea coming a mile off. They knew this Jesus had developed a dangerously large number of followers and that there could be an uprising amongst the people. They also knew Jesus’ followers hoped he might be raised from the dead and they wanted to make sure no-one could claim that he actually did! This is why a guard was posted on the tomb (Mt 27:62-66). This guard would have guarded the tomb with the knowledge that he would be killed if he failed in his duty as a Roman soldier.
- Secondly, even if the disciples did manage to steal the dead body of Jesus, the Romans would have been hunting for it everywhere to expose the dangerous new movement as a sham but they couldn’t find any dead Jesus! No dead body of Jesus was ever found.
- Thirdly, hundreds of Jesus’ followers faced torture and execution for being part of the new movement based on his death and resurrection. They had to be convinced they were telling the truth. Not many people would be willing to die for something they knew to be a hoax. Surely someone would have let the cat out of the bag at some point. But it didn’t happen. Probably because the people who were martyred were genuinely convinced that Jesus was alive.
Another thing the gospels tell us is that people saw Jesus alive after he died (Jn 20:27, 21:12-13, Lk 24:13-35, 36-39, Mk 16:9-14 and others too). In fact, Paul (one of the earliest church leaders in the New Testament) says that a crowd of over 500 people saw Jesus alive after he died (1 Cor 15:3-7). Others even ate meals with Jesus and were convinced he couldn’t be a ghost (Lk 24:37-43). The ‘seeing things’ theory says that because of the disciples’ extreme grief and despair, their minds were playing tricks on them and they thought they saw Jesus but in reality it was just psychological. It often happens to people following a particularly painful bereavement. Again, there are several problems with this theory...
- Firstly, although it’s true that one person might imagine they see their dead loved one after they recently died, it’s just ridiculous to claim that a crowd of over 500 people were suffering from the same delusion at the same time. This kind of mass scale hallucination just doesn’t happen.
- Secondly, remember the Romans were keen to make sure no-one thought Jesus had actually risen from the dead because of the potential uprising amongst the people. If people were just seeing things and Jesus was really still dead in the tomb, it would have been easy for the Romans to prove by producing the dead body of Jesus. But they couldn’t do this, because no body could ever be found.
This theory says that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross. It says he just fainted and then later on in the tomb, he revived and escaped. This is probably the most ridiculous theory of all...
- Firstly, the Romans were expert killers and crucifixion was one of the most torturous ways to die. They knew exactly what they were doing. Jesus had already been flogged and made to carry the cross. He didn’t even make it all the way because he was so exhausted from the beatings. And when they put him on the cross, he was nailed through his wrists and feet to hold him up. Most victims of crucifixion died from suffocation because breathing involved the massive effort of heaving their body weight up on the nails in order to catch breath. There was only so long a person could go on before they gave up and died. We also have the account of Roman soldiers piercing Jesus’ side and a mixture of blood and water flowing out (Jn 19:31-37), which is clinical proof of death. They did this to make sure people were dead before taking them down from the cross. There’s no way Jesus would have survived it.
- Secondly, even if Jesus somehow managed to make it to the tomb alive, the stone that blocked the entrance would have taken at least 2-3 people to move it. There’s no way a half dead Jesus could have managed it and then taken on the Roman guard as well! Not possible and no evidence for it either.
- Thirdly, if Jesus did manage to escape all this, he would have died again at some point and the Romans would have been able to produce his body and stop the underground movement of Christians in its tracks. But... no body could be found.
So, we’ve got reliable accounts of Jesus expertly tortured and killed by Romans, an empty tomb and no dead body ever found, plus hundreds of eye witnesses claiming to have seen Jesus alive after he died and plenty more willing to die for their conviction about the events that all happened within their lifetime. The evidence really does stack up in favour of the resurrection of Jesus and that must cause us to take seriously the things he claimed about himself – that he really was and is the Son of God (Mt 16:13-20) who came into our world to save us (1 Tim 1:15) and forgive us (Mt 26:28) so we could have a fresh start with God (Col 1:21-23), life to the full (Jn 10:10) and life forever (Jn 3:16).
Did the resurrection really happen in history? - More from a qualified expert