For two thousand years, Christians have insisted that Jesus rose physically from the dead on the Sunday after his crucifixion. The historicity of the resurrection is central to Christian theology because Jesus’s death and resurrection are both tied to our salvation. While most religions teach that we are saved on the basis of the good things we do, Christianity teaches that we are saved on the basis of what Jesus did for us. The Bible insists that while we were still far from God, ignoring him, rejecting him, and rebelling against him, God drew near to us in Christ to bear our sin, to take our punishment, and to die on the cross in our place. The resurrection was God’s confirmation that Jesus was who he claimed to be, and it is God’s assurance to Christians that they have been forgiven.
Because of its theological significance, many people assume that the resurrection is merely an article of religious faith, not an event for which there could be any historical evidence. But that is not the case. In fact, I would argue that even from a purely secular standpoint, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is quite strong. For instance, skeptic Jeffery Lowder, a cofounder of Internet Infidels, writes that “strong historical arguments” can be made for the resurrection. Although he thinks that such arguments are insufficient, he agrees that “for theists [people who believe in God’s existence] . . . the resurrection is a plausible explanation.”1 Similarly, renowned atheist-turned-deist philosopher Antony Flew affirms that “the evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.”2 Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide even states, “I accept the resurrection of Easter Sunday not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as a historical event.”3
What historical evidence was sufficient to convince these non-Christians that the resurrection should be taken seriously and not carelessly dismissed? Although there are other lines of evidence, I’ll sketch an argument for the historicity of the resurrection that rests on four main points: the death and burial of Jesus, the empty tomb, the belief of the apostles, and the conversion of Paul.4
1. Jesus’s Death and Burial
Contemporary historians are virtually unanimous in their acceptance of Jesus’s death on the cross.5 His death by crucifixion is the single fact most mentioned in all the historical records of his life, both Christian and non-Christian. It is recorded in numerous books of the New Testament, including all four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and Revelation. It is mentioned by non-Christians like Josephus and Tacitus. It is discussed in apocryphal gospels such as the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Truth. And it is referenced by numerous early Christian writings, including 1 Clement and the epistles of Barnabas and Polycarp. Moreover, it is extremely unlikely that the early Christians would have invented the story that their Savior was an executed criminal. Agnostic Bart Ehrman writes:
It is hard today to understand just how offensive the idea of a crucified messiah would have been to most first-century Jews. . . . Since no one would have made up the idea of a crucified messiah, Jesus must really have existed, must really have raised messianic expectations, and must really have been crucified.6
New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann captures the scholarly consensus when he writes, “The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.”7 Similarly, there is strong evidence for the historicity of Jesus’s burial. Most importantly, Jesus’s burial is recorded in all four Gospels. The burial of Jesus is also explicitly mentioned in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, written in the late AD 50s, around thirty years after Jesus’s death, and it probably reflects a much earlier creed.8 Given that multiple attestation is one of the major criteria by which New Testament scholars adjudicate the historicity of an event,9 the fact that several independent sources reference the same event strongly suggests that it is historical. Second, the Gospels all claim that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious court that condemned Jesus to death. It seems unlikely that early Christians would have invented this detail involving such a prominent figure, one who was a member of a group opposed to the early Christian movement.10
If we accept the position that Jesus did actually die on the cross and was actually buried, we must then ask, What happened to Jesus after his death and burial?
2. The Empty Tomb
Second, the New Testament Gospels claim that the tomb of Jesus was found empty on the Sunday following his crucifixion. While this claim is not universally affirmed, a recent survey of three decades’ worth of academic literature shows that it was accepted by the majority of scholars who wrote on that subject.11 The strongest piece of evidence in favor of the historicity of the empty tomb is the report that it was discovered by women. This detail may not strike us as odd, but it is surprising, given the low status of women in the first century. For example, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus claimed that Jewish law expressed the following sentiment regarding the reliability of women: “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.”12 If the early Christians were inventing narratives to support their own version of events, why not ascribe the discovery of the tomb to witnesses who would have been received as more credible?
Reflecting on this piece of evidence, Jewish New Testament scholar Geza Vermes concludes:
In the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike—and even perhaps of the disciples themselves—are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb.13
Notice that Vermes is not defending the resurrection; he suggests that it may have been an “interpretation” of the disciples. Nevertheless, he recognizes the strength of the women’s testimony as evidence that the tomb was really found empty.
A second factor supporting the historicity of the empty tomb is the fact that just seven weeks after Jesus’s death, the apostles began preaching the resurrection in Jerusalem itself, the very city in which Jesus had been crucified. Had he been lying in a tomb even for this length of time, his features such as hair, teeth, stature, and the wounds of crucifixion would have still been identifiable.14 It is difficult to see how the fledgling Christian movement could have survived despite the opposition of the ruling authorities if the corpse of Jesus had been interred within walking distance of the temple. Any skeptic who wanted to refute the claims of the apostles could have silenced them by taking a short stroll to the burial place of Jesus. Yet we have no record of anyone claiming that the disciples lied about the empty tomb. How did Christianity grow so rapidly in the very place where Jesus was buried if it could have been falsified so easily?15
Finally, at the end of his Gospel, Matthew provides what amounts to a dialogue between Christians and Jews regarding the body of Jesus.16 He states that the Jewish leaders of his day insisted that Jesus’s body had been stolen by the disciples, a claim that apparently was still circulating in the second century, since it is referenced in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho.17 But this accusation implies that the Jewish leaders believed that the tomb was actually empty; obviously, they would not have accused the disciples of grave robbery if they believed that Jesus’s body was still in the tomb. For these reasons, most skeptical responses to the resurrection do not simply dismiss the empty tomb as a legend, but try to provide some alternative explanation for it.
3. The Belief of the Apostles
Third, the followers of Jesus claimed to have seen him alive after he had been executed. They did not claim to have seen him only once or for a short time; they claimed to have seen him repeatedly over an extended period of several weeks. They also did not merely claim to have had a vision of him but said that they touched him, talked to him, and ate with him.18 These experiences were not limited to one or two individuals but included large groups of people, including five hundred at one time.19 What are we to make of these claims?
It is nearly universally accepted by historians that the disciples genuinely believed they had encountered the resurrected Jesus, even if they were mistaken in their belief. For instance, Gerd Lüdemann, who denies the historicity of the resurrection, nonetheless states, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”20 The reason for this consensus is the persecution endured by the apostles for their belief in the resurrection. The apostles were repeatedly beaten and imprisoned. We have good historical evidence that James, Peter, and Paul were all executed for their faith, and church tradition maintains that as many as eleven of the twelve apostles were eventually martyred.21 Given the suffering that the apostles faced, it is difficult to maintain that they knew the resurrection to be a hoax. What would their motivation have been if they knew for certain that they had invented the resurrection stories?
As a parallel, it’s reasonable to infer that the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers on 9/11 were sincere. If they were certain that Islam was false, why were they willing to kill themselves and thousands of others? What would they have had to gain? Likewise, we can infer that the apostles were sincere. Like the terrorists on 9/11, they would have had little to gain and a great deal to lose by acting upon a known falsehood. But unlike the terrorists, the apostles were in a position to know with complete certainty whether their claims were true. They were claiming to have seen, touched, and conversed with a man who had been executed just days earlier. If they had intentionally invented that claim, they would have known for certain that it was not worth dying for.
Muslim author Reza Aslan, who argues that it’s “impossible to know” exactly what happened after Jesus’s death, nonetheless recognizes the significance of these considerations. He writes:
One could simply . . . dismiss the resurrection as a lie, and declare belief in the risen Jesus to be the product of a deludable mind. However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony. That is not, in itself, unusual. Many zealous Jews died horribly for refusing to deny their beliefs. But these first followers of Jesus were not being asked to reject matters of faith based on events that took place centuries, if not millennia, before. They were being asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered.22
When they began to face persecution and even death, why would they continue to affirm what they knew to be a lie? The best explanation is that they truly believed they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, whether or not their belief was correct.
4. The Conversion of Paul
Fourth, the conversion of Paul is an important datum reported in the book of Acts and by Paul himself in several of his New Testament letters. He had originally been a vehement opponent of the church and had even consented to the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. While traveling to Damascus to continue his persecution of the early church, Paul suddenly became a Christian, claiming he had encountered Jesus on the road. Unlike the other apostles, Paul had not been a follower of Jesus during his ministry and was clearly no friend to the early church. Thus, his testimony can be regarded as that of a “hostile witness,” someone who had no incentive to accept Christian testimony about the resurrection unless he himself had an experience that he could unambiguously interpret as confirmation that Jesus was alive.23
The weight of this piece of evidence is significant. First, Paul’s conversion put him at immediate odds with the Jewish religious leaders in every city to which he traveled. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul recounts how he was whipped, beaten, stoned, and shipwrecked as a result of his faith (2 Cor. 11:24–25). Moreover, the physical consequences of his conversion are perhaps even less significant than its spiritual implications. Like many Pharisees, Paul regarded the claims of Jesus’s followers—that their Master was the divine Messiah—to be not only false but utterly blasphemous (see Acts 22:2–5; 1 Tim. 1:13). However, Paul underwent a complete religious transformation in a matter of days. He went from regarding Jesus as a false prophet to believing that Jesus was the unique Son of God, who alone offered salvation to all humanity.
This event is psychologically surprising. It would have been as unexpected as Richard Dawkins, the vocal Oxford atheist, suddenly announcing that Jesus appeared to him in his study and that he was now a Christian. While we might think he was crazy, it would be hard to deny that something extraordinary had taken place to bring about such a complete reversal. In fact, the conversion of Paul is even more surprising than the hypothetical conversion of Dawkins, given that Paul embraced not a world religion with billions of followers but a despised, persecuted religious sect with no power and few adherents. Therefore, anyone who doubts the resurrection must provide a plausible account of why Paul underwent such a dramatic conversion in such a short period of time.