Did Jesus rise from the dead?

Every question deserves consideration. But some questions are foundational to all the rest.

The resurrection of Jesus is one of these foundational questions. Did he really rise from the dead? The answer has huge implications for the way we set our goals or find meaning in life. The apostle Paul wrote:

“(I)f Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:17–19 ESV)

Documents written during the lifetime of witnesses to his resurrection described the events that preceded and followed it. Jewish law required Jesus’s body to be properly buried. His enemies took precautions to assure it wouldn’t be stolen (Matthew 27:62–66). Yet according to detailed accounts in the Gospels, Jesus’s tomb was empty on Sunday morning. Had Jesus’s enemies been able, they would have produced his body to refute claims of his resurrection.

It is remarkable that women were the first to visit the tomb, a fact that wouldn’t have been mentioned if the account were “invented.”[1] The next witnesses were disciples who had abandoned Jesus when he was arrested. Then there are fascinating details, like the description of his body wrappings in the grave.[2]

On the morning of Jesus’s resurrection and during the following days and weeks many witnesses reported personal encounters with him (Luke 24; John 20–21). In fact, 55 days later, Peter proclaimed Jesus’s resurrection to thousands of Jewish pilgrims in the vicinity of the Temple. In letters written just 20 to 25 years later, Paul affirmed the Gospel accounts, noting that Jesus appeared to his brother James, to all the rest of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3–8), and to an assembled group of over 500 men and women. Many of those witnesses were still alive when Paul made his claim.

Testimony like this seems impossible to explain if Jesus’s resurrection didn’t occur. Why were friends who had abandoned him and hid from the authorities when he was arrested suddenly willing to risk their lives by testifying that he was still alive? No matter how absurd their claims seemed, early Christians were ready to confirm their faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection in the face of persecution and death (1 Corinthians 1:20–25).[3]

False messiahs preceded and followed Jesus’ life and ministry. Their credibility ended with their deaths. There is no historical precedent or parallel for such faith in the resurrection of a man who had died.

[1] At the time the Gospels were written, there was a strong prejudice against women as witnesses. They were viewed as too emotional and irrational to be reliable. This prejudice was so strong that women were generally not admissible as witnesses in Jewish courts.

[2] The folded head cloth in John 20:7 is itself an amazing piece of evidence, as described by William Barclay: “For the moment Peter was only amazed at the empty tomb; but then things began to happen in John’s mind. If someone had removed Jesus’ body, if tomb-robbers had been at work, why should they leave the grave clothes? And then something else struck John—the grave clothes were not disheveled and disarranged; they were lying there still in their folds—that is what the Greek means—the clothes for the body where the body had been; the napkin where the head had lain. The whole point of the description is that the grave clothes did not look as if they had been put off or taken off; they were lying there in their regular folds as if the body of Jesus had simply evaporated out of them and left them lying. The sight suddenly penetrated to John’s mind; he realized that had happened—and he believed. It was not what John read in scripture which convinced him that Jesus had risen; it was what with his own eyes he saw.” (The Gospel of John, Vol. 2)

 

[3] One of the many New Testament scholars who have been convinced by the historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection, N. T. Wright, wrote a book that describes, among other things, the serious problems that arise when one tries to explain early Christian faith on the basis of visions and hallucinations. This is his summary of the evidence: “Historical argument alone cannot force anyone to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead; but historical argument is remarkably good at clearing away the undergrowth behind which skepticisms of various sorts have been hiding. The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivalled power to explain the historical data at the heart of early Christianity.” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 718)

 

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