Is the Resurrection a Fraud, Fantasy, or Fact?
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the climax of the New Testament. If it really happened, it is a historic event of such magnitude that it affects every person on the face of the earth. Why? Because it powerfully demonstrates that Jesus is God (Rom. 1:4). Who else could overcome death by rising bodily from the dead? Furthermore, Jesus promised that we too can be resurrected to eternal life by accepting Him as Lord and by believing in His resurrection (10:9). Thus our salvation rests on the authenticity of His resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:17–19, the apostle Paul explains: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ [died as Christians] have perished. If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most to be pitied” (nasv).
In short, the resurrection of Jesus Christ not only offers the most dramatic and explicit evidence for His deity, but it also guarantees our own eternal salvation. His rising from the dead is the culmination, the capstone of all other Christian evidences.
But how do we know it really happened? Let’s consider the evidence.
THE PROPHETIC WITNESS
The New Testament writers taught that Jesus’ coming was prophesied in the Old Testament and that His resurrection proved His deity. The apostle Paul stated that the gospel of God (the good news of Jesus) was “promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures” (Rom. 1:2). He then adds that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God with power … by the resurrection from the dead” (v. 4).
In 1 Corinthians 15:1–19, Paul presents the essence of the entire gospel in capsule form. And his primary message is: (1) Jesus died according to the prophecy of Scripture; (2) His resurrection was observed by eyewitnesses (in fact, many were still alive when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians and could have easily refuted his claim were it not true); and (3) without His resurrection, there is no Christianity, no Savior, and believers are lost in their sins, still unsaved.
In Acts 2:27, Peter quotes Psalm 16:10 where David writes, “Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow thy Holy One to undergo decay” (nasv). David refers to his own future resurrection, but his words are also prophetic because they refer to the resurrection of a future Messiah. Peter argues that the “Holy One” who will not be abandoned to hades nor have His flesh suffer decay is Jesus, the Messiah (v. 36). David is dead, buried, and still in his tomb. Thus, Peter says, David’s words look “ahead and [speak] of the resurrection of the Christ” (v. 31, nasv). Peter uses Jesus’ resurrection as the focal point for his argument that Jesus is the “Holy One” of God, the divine Messiah.
When we turn to the four Gospels, we find that all of them record Jesus predicting His death and resurrection from the dead in three days (Matt. 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; John 2:19–21). Moreover, He claimed that He would raise Himself from the grave—an obvious claim to be God because only God can resurrect the dead. And when the scribes and Pharisees asked Him for a “sign,” for proof of His identity, He prophesied His coming resurrection (Matt. 12:38–40). It takes little reflection to realize that if Jesus did not know who He was (the Son of God) and that He would die and raise Himself again in three days, He would not have risked destroying His new religious movement with false prophecy, especially in a Jewish context which placed a high premium on accurate predictions.
SOME LEGAL CRITERIA
John Warwick Montgomery suggests some direct parallels between the “law of evidence” as it is used in our legal system and how it can be used in defending historic Christianity. Montgomery explains that this law supports the Bible’s contention that Jesus’ deity can be substantiated by His resurrection. Montgomery gives three specific evidential rules that show this.1
First, the factuality of an event is determined by the probability of the evidence supporting it. Thus, Christians are “precisely on the right track when they defend their position in terms of the weight of factual evidence for Christ’s deity.” Moreover, this probability evidence is considered independently on its own weight. Says Montgomery, “the non-Christian will be prevented from arguing against Christ’s resurrection on the ground that regular events in general [e.g., natural laws] make a particular miracle [such as the resurrection] too ‘improbable’ to consider.” In other words, just because no one has witnessed a person rise from the dead since Jesus does not lessen the factuality of Christ’s resurrection, so long as the evidence supporting it is sufficient, which it is.
Second, evidence must be derived from “the most reliable sources of information.” This means that statements from eyewitnesses are the most trustworthy and carry the most weight. The New Testament is “primary source” information because it was written by those who personally knew Jesus or who were close associates of His apostles. The resurrection of Jesus was recorded in the Bible by eyewitnesses to Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Moreover, because the Bible is primary source information, the burden of proof in any attempt to disqualify the authenticity of the resurrection rests on the critic.
Third, in cases where no direct eyewitnesses are available, the law allows circumstantial evidence to be determinative. In the case of the resurrection, no one was actually there the moment Jesus arose from the dead. However, as Montgomery explains, eyewitnesses testified that Jesus was put to death by crucifixion, placed in a tomb, disappeared from that tomb unaided, and later made numerous postresurrection appearances over a forty-day period. This is more than enough circumstantial evidence to establish the authenticity of His resurrection.
In summary, then, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was observed by eyewitnesses to the event, recorded by them in a document of proven historical reliability (the Bible), and no shred of historical, archaeological, scientific, or contrary circumstantial evidence has ever been presented to disprove it.
Since the Bible is historically reliable and it records Jesus’ resurrection, that’s enough to conclude that it actually happened. However, some additional historical insights will make this truth even plainer.
When the resurrection event was recorded in Scripture, a sufficient number of people were still alive to verify its actuality. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:5–6, Paul states that, after Jesus’ resurrection, Christ appeared to the eleven apostles (Judas was already dead) and to “over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present” (i.e., were still alive at the time he wrote).
Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances were numerous, widespread, and occurred under a variety of circumstances. The Bible states that Jesus made fifteen different appearances in His resurrected body. Luke writes in Acts 1:3 that Jesus “presented Himself alive after His suffering [death on the cross] by many infallible proofs, being seen by them [the apostles] during forty days.” In His post-resurrection appearances, Jesus walked and talked with His disciples, ate in their homes, fished and had breakfast with them, and taught them about the kingdom of God (John 21:1–14; Luke 24:28–30). He appeared in a garden near His tomb, in an upper room, on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and in faraway Galilee. Jesus even made several appearances to Paul, Stephen, and the apostle John after His ascension into heaven (Acts 7:55; 9:3–5; Rev. 1:9–13).
The New Testament writers carefully documented their accounts of Jesus’ life, including His resurrection. Wrote Luke, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order” (Luke 1:1–4, nasv). Peter added, “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16, nasv). Elsewhere Peter showed that he recognized the value of eyewitness testimony when he reminded his critics that they too were witnesses to the miracles Jesus performed among them (Acts 2:22). And the apostle John penned, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life [Jesus]” (1 John 1:1, nasv, emphasis mine).
The most sensational evidence found in history for the validity of Christ’s resurrection is the changed lives of the apostles. Matthew 26:56 reports that after Jesus was arrested by the Jewish leaders, “all the disciples forsook Him and fled.” John 20:19 adds that some of the disciples even hid themselves behind locked doors in fear of reprisal by the Jewish religious leaders. From these and other passages, we get the picture of a group of disenchanted and extremely frightened men. Even Peter, Jesus’ most stalwart and bold disciple, denied Christ three times to protect his own life. But something happened to these terrified men that turned them into bold spokesmen and diligent workers for Christ, men willing to forsake everything, including their lives, to spread the good news about Him. Only the resurrection could adequately account for such a dramatic turnaround.
By the time of Pentecost, just a few weeks after Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, the same cowardly, panic-stricken group of apostles were boldly and publicly preaching the risen Christ in the very city and before the very authorities that had crucified Him. They no longer feared death, and no amount of persecution could silence them.
The apostle Paul also experienced a profound life-changing event. Paul was probably the greatest enemy of the early church, putting believers into prison and executing them. Yet, while on a trip to Damascus to persecute the Christians living there, something happened to Paul that turned him into the greatest evangelist of the church. What so affected him? He saw the risen Christ (Acts 9).
It can be argued that people will gladly die for a cause so long as they believe it is right even if, in fact, it is wrong. But they will never die for a cause they know is false. It is ludicrous to believe that the apostles willingly forfeited the comforts of life, their jobs and family, and their financial security and instead accepted ridicule, persecution, imprisonment, torture, and in many cases horrible deaths all the while knowing Jesus’ resurrection was a fabrication. No. They knew He was alive, risen from the dead, and it was that knowledge that propelled them to live for Him at all costs. What about the sudden birth of the Christian church on Pentecost (Pentecost is the day in which the Holy Spirit first came to indwell believers)? Scholars have been able to trace the origin of the Christian church back to around a.d. 32. Acts 2:41 records that about three thousand people were saved on the day of Pentecost. What caused the church to spring into existence so abruptly? What caused so many thousands of devout, highly religious Jews to join a new religious movement that was vehemently opposed by their religious leaders? They heard and trusted the good news of the resurrected Christ and became filled by His Spirit.
Sunday as the day of Christian worship is another tradition that can be traced back to the very beginning of the church. The first Christians were Jews. The Jewish Sabbath was, and still is, on Saturday. What led the early Jewish Christians to start worshiping on Sunday? In fact, why did the early Christians even adopt the name “Christian” (Acts 11:26)? Because Sunday is the day that Jesus the Christ—God’s Messiah Son—was resurrected from the grave.
More than enough evidence has been presented to demonstrate Jesus’ victory over death. However, we need to confront some common challenges to this evidence and event. None of these are very serious and, as you’ll see, all are easily refuted.
JESUS WASN’T REALLY DEAD WHEN HE WAS BURIED
One of the most common arguments to explain away the resurrection is the claim that Jesus was not dead when placed in the tomb. This is the so-called swoon theory or drug hypothesis. It claims that Jesus either feigned death, fainted on the cross, or was drugged so that He appeared dead. After burial, He revived, made His way out of the rock tomb, and appeared to His disciples. They mistakenly thought He had resurrected and built a whole movement around their error.
We need to first understand there is not a shred of evidence to support this theory. Nowhere in Roman or Jewish history does anyone argue or even imply that Jesus did not die on the cross. It took eighteen centuries after Christ’s death before this idea found an advocate.
The fact is that the historical record refutes this theory at every turn.
Mark 15:44 relates that Pilate certified Christ’s death before he turned His body over to Joseph of Arimathea for burial. Then Joseph and Nicodemus prepared Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39–40) by wrapping it in linen and spices (which likely weighed about one hundred pounds). Certainly they would not have gone through all this if they had had any indication that Jesus was still alive.
In John 19:31–34, it states that the Roman soldiers came to break the legs of the prisoners hanging on the crosses to hasten their death. But because Jesus was already dead, they did not break His legs. However, one of the soldiers did thrust a spear into Jesus’ side. Verse 34 reports that “blood and water” flowed from His wound. According to modern medicine, this phenomenon most likely indicates a ruptured heart. There’s little doubt, therefore, that Jesus was dead when lifted down from the cross.
The site of His burial raises another problem for this theory. Engineers have estimated that the large stone rolled in front of His tomb to seal it (Matt. 27:60) probably weighed one-and-a-half to two tons. It was positioned in a trench slopping downward so it could be rolled into place but not easily removed. In fact, it would have taken several men to roll it out of the way. When Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were on their way to the tomb to finish preparing Christ’s body, they were concerned over who would remove the stone for them. They knew that their combined strength was not enough (Mark 16:2–3). And yet, when they got to the tomb, the stone had been moved from the entrance. Who moved the stone? It is inconceivable that Jesus, after spending several hours in a cold tomb, mortally wounded, dehydrated, and famished, would be capable of moving such a huge stone—even if He had been alive and in great health!
It’s little wonder that this challenge to the resurrection has never won much support.
THE DISCIPLES STOLE JESUS’ BODY
In Matthew 27:62–66, the Jewish authorities, remembering that Jesus predicted He would rise from the grave in three days, requested that Pilate place a guard around His tomb to prevent anyone from stealing His body and then claiming that He had risen as predicted. But after Jesus did rise from the grave, Matthew 28:11–15 reports that a conspiracy was formed. The Jewish authorities bribed the soldiers guarding the tomb, telling them to claim that Jesus’ disciples came at night and stole His body while the guards slept.
The first thing to note is that the conspiracy was hatched because Jesus’ tomb was in fact empty. If His body had still been there, nothing would have had to be fabricated. So here’s implicit evidence that Jesus had arisen.
Second, and most obviously, how could the soldiers know who, if anyone, stole the body if they were asleep when the robbery took place?
A third problem surfaces from the expectations of Jesus’ followers. To begin with, Mary Magdalene and the other women who first visited the tomb did not expect to find it empty. They would not have gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus for burial if they did. Nor did the disciples expect Jesus to rise from the grave. Indeed, when the women first reported to the disciples that the tomb was empty, the disciples rejected their story (Mark 16:11). Even after seeing the empty tomb, the disciples still did not realize that Jesus had risen (John 20:9). If the followers of Jesus failed to understand that Jesus would rise from the grave, why would they have stolen His body? Why would they devise a scheme to preach a resurrected Christ if they did not expect Jesus to be resurrected in the first place?
Furthermore, the biblical picture of the disciples between Jesus’ arrest and post-resurrection appearances is not in harmony with the bold and daring men that would have been needed to pull off such an imaginative scheme as stealing Jesus’ body and then perpetuating a resurrection hoax. The disciples abandoned Jesus even before His trial and were so frightened that some locked themselves in their rooms. In addition, the tomb was heavily guarded (Matthew 27:62–66), so a robbery attempt filled with danger would have been no match for the terrified disciples. And even if the guards had been asleep, the disciples could not possibly have moved a one- or two-ton stone without waking them.
Still another problem is found in Matthew 27:66, which states that a Roman government seal was placed on the stone over the tomb. If the disciples had stolen the body, they would have had to remove the stone, which would have broken the seal. This would have brought upon them the full force of Roman law and a harsh and swift punishment. If Pilate or other Roman authorities had really believed the disciples had stolen the body, they would have arrested and questioned them. But there is no record in Scripture or elsewhere that this ever happened.
Perhaps the best answer to the question of whether or not the disciples stole the body is to show that they had no motive to do so. Throughout their lives, the disciples gained neither worldly wealth nor fame nor honor. In fact, they were imprisoned, tortured, and all but one (John) executed. Had they stolen Jesus’ body, they would have known Jesus had not risen from the dead. They would have endured harsh lives and ruthless deaths for nothing. It is preposterous to argue that the disciples went through their final years with no earthly rewards and possible spiritual damnation to preserve a fantastic lie. It takes an irrational faith to believe that, whereas the resurrection only requires a rational faith founded on fact after fact.
THE ROMANS STOLE JESUS’ BODY
Again, there is no motive. In fact, the Romans had a strong motive not to steal the body because they had the responsibility of preserving the peace in Palestine. Stealing Jesus’ body would have incurred the anger of the Jews by sanctioning the growth of a new religious movement in opposition to Judaism. Besides, even assuming the Romans were the thieves, they certainly would have produced the body as soon as the Christian movement imperiled the peace in Jerusalem.
THE JEWISH AUTHORITIES STOLE JESUS’ BODY
It’s just as unlikely that the Jewish religious leaders would have stolen Jesus’ body. They were the ones who pushed for Jesus’ crucifixion to stop His religious movement. Acts 4 relates that they did everything possible to crush Christianity. If they had stolen Jesus’ body, it would have been to their full advantage to have produced it as soon as the disciples began to preach that Jesus had risen.
Moreover, the Jewish authorities remembered that Jesus had predicted He would rise in three days, and they requested that the tomb be guarded to prevent His body from being stolen so such a story could not arise (Matt. 27:63–64). This being the case, why would they turn around and steal the body themselves, then keep it hidden while Christianity grew in numbers because of the resurrection message? It doesn’t make sense. That’s exactly what the Jewish authorities wanted to avoid.
MAYBE JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA REMOVED JESUS’ BODY
There are several objections to this theory. First, there is no motive. Joseph was a follower of Jesus and would not have moved the body to keep the disciples from stealing it. Second, if he was not really a Christ-follower, he would have produced the body to stop the disciples as soon as they began to preach the resurrection of Christ. Third, if he removed the body for fear that someone else would steal it, the Roman authorities would have had to agree and would likely had known where he moved it and been able to produce the body at will. Fourth, as a friend of Jesus and the disciples, he would certainly report any location changes to the disciples. And, fifth, if the disciples knew Joseph had moved the body, they would not have preached the resurrection of Christ and died for a lie.
JESUS’ TOMB WASN’T REALLY EMPTY
Within two months after the resurrection, the apostles began to preach the gospel message in Jerusalem. If Jesus was still in the tomb, it would have been a simple matter for the Jewish or Roman authorities to recover His body, publicly display it, and destroy the growing Christian movement. Moreover, Matthew 28:11–13 reports that the Jewish authorities bribed the soldiers to tell a false story, in order to account for the empty tomb. Thus we have hostile witnesses (people who would wish to refute the resurrection story) clearly acknowledging that the tomb did not house Jesus.
An interesting historical comment on the factuality of the resurrection comes, indirectly, from hostile witnesses. A critic can inadvertently admit to a fact that does not support his cause when he fails to present his own evidence against it. When this happens, it is a good indication that the fact is genuine. In the case of the resurrection, if the opponents of Christianity could have produced the body of Jesus or any other evidence that He did not rise from the grave, they would have done so. Yet there is not a shred of evidence from the contemporaries of Christ that attempts to disprove the historicity of the resurrection.
THE WOMEN WENT TO THE WRONG TOMB
According to this theory, during the dingy morning hours when the women returned to Jesus’ tomb to complete the burial procedures, they simply made a mistake. They went to the wrong tomb, found it empty, and concluded Jesus had risen from the grave.
This is mere silly speculation. For one thing, Jesus was not buried in a public cemetery full of empty tombs but in a private burial ground. It is unlikely that His tomb would have been confused with another.
Second, after the women reported to Peter and John that the tomb was empty, the two disciples immediately dashed off to check it out for themselves, and all this took place in broad daylight (John 20:1–10). Did they make the same mistake? That’s extremely improbable.
Third, John and Peter both saw the empty grave clothes that had been wrapped around Jesus and sealed with spices (John 20:4–6). That can’t be accounted for on the wrong-tomb hypothesis.
Fourth, since a guard was placed at the tomb, the Romans and Jews obviously knew where the grave was located and would have produced the body once resurrection stories started to circulate.
And finally, if Jesus’ tomb was not empty, one must still account for the numerous post-resurrection appearances of Christ over a forty-day period.
THE PEOPLE WHO SAW JESUS AFTER HIS RESURRECTION WERE HALLUCINATING
With a little reflection, this theory does not hold water. To begin with, hundreds of people saw the risen Christ over a forty-day period, over a wide geographic area, and under a variety of circumstances. Hallucinations are not contagious. Moreover, people who suffer hallucinations normally do so because they want to see something or expect to see something. The disciples were not psychologically prepared to hallucinate because they were not expecting Jesus to rise from the grave. Perhaps the best argument against hallucinations is the fact that on three separate occasions, Jesus was not even recognized (Luke 24:13–31; John 20:15; 21:4). How can you not recognize something you expected or wanted to see badly enough to hallucinate about it? Besides, if the post-resurrection sightings were the products of hallucinations, no one ever produced the body to prove it.
JESUS IS ALIVE!
The evidence is conclusive: Jesus Christ, three days after His death and burial, rose from the grave alive in bodily form, thereby demonstrating that He is God.
The Bible teaches that all believers will be raised like Christ and be clothed in a resurrected, glorified, immortal body (1 Cor. 15:40–50; see 1 John 3:2). Jesus is proof of that.
All that’s left is for us to heed Paul’s words: “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
1 The following information and quotes are from John Warwick Montgomery’s LAW AND GOSPEL, 34–35.