Jesus’s resurrection is at the very heart of historic Christianity. In fact, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is both a central doctrinal belief of the faith and the primary evidence for the truth of the religion itself. Given the importance of Easter for Christians, it is appropriate for us to consider a dozen evidences for the resurrection of Jesus. For greater depth on these points, see the recommended resources at the end of the article.
1. Jesus’s Empty Tomb
According to the Gospels,1 after Jesus succumbed to death through crucifixion, some of his followers prepared his lifeless body for burial and placed it in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. Three days later the tomb was discovered empty, for Jesus’s body had vanished. The empty tomb is a critical part of the resurrection account, for if Jesus’s body had been recovered, then Christianity would have been falsified right as it had just begun. Since Jesus predicted his resurrection (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22), if he didn’t rise from the dead, he would be a false prophet.
The report of Jesus’s empty tomb rings true, for the account emerges very early from a number of sources, and there is no good reason to doubt any of the people mentioned in the story. Furthermore, the tomb was owned by a particular person, so there is no good reason to think that Jesus’s followers had mistakenly gone to the wrong tomb. Also, the Jewish and Roman authorities had the resources to search thoroughly for the actual burial place had the empty tomb been a mere problem of mistaken identity.
It should also be recognized that the first alternative naturalistic explanation for the resurrection presupposed the truth of the vacated tomb. The Jewish authorities insisted that the tomb was empty because they planned to tell people that Jesus’s followers had come in the night and stolen the body (Matthew 28:13).
2. Jesus’s Postmortem Appearances
According to the apostle Paul’s letters as well as the four Gospel accounts, Jesus appeared alive after his death on numerous occasions. These appearances of Jesus were reported to be both physical and bodily in nature (he was seen, heard, and touched) and not purely spiritual or ghostlike. The resurrection appearances were also diverse and varied in that Jesus appeared to men and women, to friends and enemies, to single individuals as well as to small and large groups of people, to some persons on a single occasion and to others more than once, during the day and the night, as well as indoors and outdoors.
It is this diverse and varied nature of the appearances that makes it extremely improbable, if not impossible, to account for these encounters in terms of hallucinations. It may have been possible that the women who first encountered Jesus at the tomb succumbed to immense grief and experienced some kind of purely subjective and thus false vision of Jesus. But a purely psychological explanation is extremely implausible in the case of James the brother of Jesus, who was highly suspicious of his brother’s claims and even thought that Jesus suffered from mental delusion. And in the case of Saul of Tarsus, the hallucination theory is flatly impossible. Saul was an enemy of primitive Christianity and sought to imprison and even have Christians executed. Acting in a dismissive and violent manner against the early Christians and their beliefs, there is no way that Saul was susceptible to a false psychological experience.
It is also important to note that if one rejects the miraculous explanation of Jesus’s appearances, then two naturalistic alternative explanations are required—one to explain the empty tomb and another to explain the numerous appearances. But the more complex these alternative theories are, the less likely they are to be true and viable.
3. Short Time Frame between Actual Events and Eyewitness Claims
Support for the factual nature of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead comes from eyewitness testimonies that were reported soon after the events happened. The apostle Paul claims both that he saw the resurrected Christ (Acts 9:1–19; 22:6–16; 26:12–23) and that others witnessed the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3) prior to his personal encounter. Paul asserts in his writings that he received the firsthand testimony from Jesus’s original apostles who were witnesses of Jesus’s resurrection even before him.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he employs a creedal statement about the resurrection that dates to the earliest period of Christianity.2 This creed is believed, even by critical scholars (those who doubt the supernatural), to be part of the original Christian kerygma (“proclamation”—representing the earliest preaching and teaching message of Christianity). This early statement of faith that Paul relays mentions by name two of Jesus’s apostles who said they had seen the resurrected Christ. These two apostles are Peter (one of the original 12 apostles and principal spokesperson of primitive Christianity) and James (the brother of Jesus who was also an early apostolic leader).
Here is that early creedal statement as the apostle Paul wove it into his first Corinthian epistle:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
–1 Corinthians 15:3–7
Paul’s statement gives us a fourfold formula of the primitive Christian proclamation as it relates to Jesus’s death and resurrection:
- Christ died.
- He was buried.
- He was raised.
- He appeared.
This time frame evidenced in the early creed places the original proclamation by the first apostles about Jesus’s resurrection very near to the time of Jesus’s death and resurrection. This development has led even critical New Testament scholars to be amazed at the early and reliable testimony evident in Paul’s writings. In fact, distinguished New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn states, “This tradition [of Jesus’s resurrection and appearances], we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’ death.”3
Therefore, given the short interval of time between the early eyewitness testimonies about Jesus’s resurrection and the actual event itself (a mere matter of months), these accounts must be considered historically credible. There was clearly no time for myth, legend, or embellishment to accrue around the initial resurrection reports.
4. Extraordinary Transformation of the Apostles
Today’s skeptics of Jesus’s resurrection sometimes state that religious people are too quick to accept reports about miracles. Those who doubt the miraculous often insist that miracle claims aren’t usually sufficiently questioned. But was this the case among Jesus’s apostles concerning the resurrection?
The New Testament describes a remarkable and enduring transformation of 11 of Jesus’s disciples. These frightened, defeated cowards after Jesus’s crucifixion soon became bold preachers and, in some cases, martyrs. They grew courageous enough to stand against hostile Jews and Romans, even in the face of torture and martyrdom. Such amazing transformation deserves an adequate explanation, for human character and conduct does not change easily or often. Because the apostles fled and denied knowing Jesus after he was arrested, their courage in the face of persecution seems even more astonishing. The disciples attributed the strength of their newfound character to their direct, personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus. In Jesus Christ’s resurrection, the apostles found their existential reason to live—and die.
According to the earliest reports concerning Jesus’s resurrection, three of the men Jesus appeared to were either initially highly skeptical of the truth of the resurrection or adamantly opposed to Jesus’s claims of being the Messiah. Those three were Thomas, James, and Saul (who would become Paul), all of whom were predisposed to dismiss the truth of the resurrection. Since Paul’s conversion will be addressed later, let’s consider the stunning impact Jesus’s resurrection had on Thomas and James.
Thomas the Doubter
While Thomas was one of the original 12 apostles, he was not among the first of Jesus’s followers to see the risen Christ. Upon hearing the report from his fellow disciples concerning Jesus’s bodily resurrection, he doubted its truth. The Gospel of John conveys Thomas’s skepticism: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
Though a follower of Jesus, Thomas was highly skeptical and needed direct, empirical evidence of Jesus’s actual bodily resurrection before he would believe the claim of his fellow disciples. Thomas demanded evidence of a concrete, empirical nature. He demonstrated tough-mindedness when it came to claims of the miraculous, even when the testimony came from his close friends and associates. Yet according to John’s Gospel, Thomas soon had an encounter with the resurrected Jesus that more than satisfied his doubts:
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
If the resurrection was merely a concocted mythical story, it is highly unlikely that it would include the claim that one of the original 12 disciples seriously questioned Jesus’s resurrection.
James the Family Skeptic
The Gospels convey that prior to the resurrection, Jesus’s brothers were highly dismissive of his messianic claims (see Mark 6:3–4 and John 7:5). In fact, Jesus’s family viewed him as suffering from mental delusion (Mark 3:21, 31–35). Yet the early creed that Paul had been given by the apostles (which included James) reported that Jesus had appeared to his brother James (1 Corinthians 15:7). James then became one of the critical leaders of the early Christian church, even holding unique authority at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:12–21). Sources in church history convey that James was later martyred for his belief in Jesus Christ.
What accounts for James’s amazing change of heart from undoubtedly being deeply embarrassed by his brother’s claims to becoming a distinguished leader in the early church, and finally to even undergoing martyrdom? The resurrection seems to best account for this radical transformation in James’s understanding and perspective. James claimed to have seen his brother alive after his public execution, and that event changed everything.
So it appears that Thomas and James seriously questioned the actual truth of Jesus’s resurrection, the way skeptics demand.
5. The Greatest Religious Conversion Ever
Some people have had dramatic religious conversions. In fact, my three favorite Christian thinkers outside of the biblical authors—St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and C. S. Lewis—all experienced amazing life-changing conversions to Christianity. But there is one person whose conversion to the Christian faith changed the world forever. That individual said that his spiritual transformation was due to encountering the resurrected Jesus Christ.
Saul of Tarsus was a respected, first-century Hebrew scholar of the Torah (the Law), a member of the Jewish party of the Pharisees, and a Roman citizen (Acts 21:37–22:3). Fervent in his devotion to God and in his intent to protect ancient Judaism from what he perceived as false and heretical teaching, he became the central adversary of the primitive Christian church. Saul expressed his impassioned hostility toward Christians by having them arrested and inciting physical persecution and execution of believers, including Stephen (Acts 7:54–8:3; Galatians 1:13–14). Traveling on the road to Damascus to further persecute the church (ca. AD 31–33), Saul underwent an extraordinary life-changing experience. According to his claim, Saul saw and spoke with the resurrected Jesus (Acts 9:1–30; 22:5–13). Following his dramatic conversion to the movement he once hated, he took on the Gentile name “Paul” and became the greatest advocate of the newfound Christian faith. After Jesus Christ himself, many scholars view the apostle Paul as the second most important figure in the history of Christianity. Paul went on to become the faith’s greatest missionary, theologian, and apologist as well as the inspired author of 13 New Testament books.
What caused Paul’s conversion—arguably the greatest religious conversion ever? To understand the true impact of this conversion, let’s consider what may be the modern equivalent of Paul’s first-century conversion to Christianity. Imagine the British prime minister and statesman Winston Churchill becoming a member of the Nazi party. Or the American president Ronald Reagan embracing Soviet communism. Or German Führer Adolf Hitler converting to the religion of Judaism. Whatever equivalent one rightly accepts, Paul’s conversion to Christianity was an absolutely astounding event.
But how is this extraordinary change of allegiance to be explained? According to Paul himself, the incredible transformation of one of Western civilization’s most influential religious leaders and thinkers was due to the appearance of the resurrected Christ. The conversion of the apostle Paul, not to mention his life and accomplishments, seems truly inexplicable apart from the fact of the resurrection.
It seems the only thing that could have possibly changed Saul’s incredibly negative opinion about primitive Christianity was for him to encounter its leader, Jesus of Nazareth, raised from the dead.
6. Emergence of the Historic Christian Church
Does every historic movement emerge from a specific cause? If so, what caused the Christian religion to come into being? What initiated this religious movement that within 300 years dominated the entire Roman Empire and over the course of two millennia dominated all of Western civilization? In a very short time span, Christianity developed a distinct cultural and theological identity apart from that of traditional Judaism. According to the New Testament, the unique religion of Christianity came into being directly because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The extraordinary historical emergence of the Christian church needs an adequate explanation. According to the Christian Scriptures, the apostles turned the world upside down with the truth of the resurrection, and the historic church emerged. This is why many have called the historic Christian church “the community of the resurrection.”
But if the resurrection didn’t cause the emergence of Christianity, what did? There seems to be no other adequate natural explanation. Thus, the heart of historic Christianity is found in the remarkable happenings of Easter Sunday.
7. Emergence of Sunday as a Day of Worship
The Hebrew people worshiped on the Sabbath, which is the seventh day of the week (measured from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). Nevertheless, the early Christian church (which was viewed initially as a sect of Judaism) gradually changed the day of their worship from the seventh to the first day of the week (see Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; “the Lord’s Day,” Revelation 1:10). For the early Christian church, Sunday uniquely commemorated Jesus’s resurrection from the dead.
Sustained reflection on Christ’s resurrection to immortal life transformed Christian worship, uniquely influencing the formulation of the sacraments of the early church (baptism and communion), and thus it distinguished the Christian faith in its theology and practice from traditional Judaism. Apart from the resurrection, no reason existed for early Christians (as a sect of Judaism) to view Sunday (the first day of the week) as having any enduring theological or ceremonial significance. The resurrection of Jesus therefore set historic Christianity apart from the Judaism of its day. That same truth of resurrected life sets the faith apart from all other religions through the centuries.
So the happening of Easter Sunday—Jesus’s resurrection—explains two things well: (1) why the Christian religion emerged as a historical movement and (2) why Christians worship on a different day of the week than the Jews. And, in turn, both of these historical elements support the factual nature of Jesus’s resurrection.
8. Plentiful Early References to Jesus’s Resurrection in the Apostle Paul’s Letters
Some critics of Christianity have asserted that the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) appear too long after the events of Jesus’s life to carry credible testimony. There is also the concern that there are too few claims of Jesus’s resurrection made by the early eyewitnesses.
While I addressed the short time span between the events of Jesus’s life and the eyewitnesses’ claims in my third point of evidence, a little more explanation is helpful here. First, the four Gospels are much closer in time to Jesus’s life than are other ancient testimonies to both religious figures (Gautama Buddha, Confucius) and secular figures (Socrates, Caesar).
Second, not only are Paul’s references to the resurrection early (considerably earlier than the four Gospel accounts), but they are abundant in nature. Paul’s epistles contain numerous references to and descriptions of Jesus’s resurrection.
Third, some of Paul’s statements about the resurrection reflect primitive Christian creeds and hymns (see Philippians 2 and Colossians 1) that date much earlier than even his earliest written letters. For example, Paul’s earliest epistles were written about 20 years after Jesus’s resurrection. But the creeds and hymns that he wove into his writings were being recited and sung by Jewish Christians back to within a few months or years of Jesus’s resurrection.
9. The New Testament Accounts of Jesus’s Resurrection Do Not Resemble Later Apocryphal Stories
The accounts of Jesus’s resurrection came from eyewitnesses and close associates of eyewitnesses. The recollections of these witnesses involve descriptions of historical, factual events. And the narrative of Jesus’s resurrection involves his physical body being raised and empirically examined, not merely rising as a spirit as in later apocryphal stories of subjective religious visions.
The apostolic reports of Jesus’s resurrection are early, plentiful, and very different than other so-called resurrection accounts.
10. No Tomb Was Ever Venerated as the Burial Place of Jesus
The burial places of famous people were often venerated in the ancient world. However, Jesus Christ is arguably the most famous person in all of history, and yet no grave or tomb was ever said to have permanently contained his body. According to his apostles, Jesus’s tomb is empty for his body has been raised. The unique Christian truth-claim is that the one-of-a-kind Jesus, the very Son of God, conquered death.
11. A Crucified Messiah Would Have Been Viewed by All Jewish Christians as Cursed by God
If Jesus had been merely crucified with no resurrection to follow, then he would have been viewed by all Jews as a false prophet who was obviously cursed by the Lord God Yahweh. Yet the viability of Christianity as a true faith was buttressed by Jesus’s resurrection. In other words, Jesus’s glorious resurrection from the dead made sense of his ignominious death. The resurrection that followed turned Jesus’s crucifixion into a divine atonement.
12. All the Alternative Naturalistic Explanations for the Resurrection of Jesus Prove False
If the events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus didn’t involve the supernatural, then there should be a viable natural explanation to account for the data. Yet none of the many naturalistic alternative theories hold water.4 On careful inspection, all of them prove false or inadequate. So the fact that all of the natural explanations fail serves as one more evidence of the truth of Jesus’s resurrection.
I invite you to read through and study these 12 brief evidences for Jesus’s resurrection multiple times. Consult the scholarly resources listed below for more information and context. Grow in your knowledge of the resurrection. Consider sharing this list with other Christians who have doubts, and be ready to talk about this evidence with nonbelievers and skeptics.
If Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead—and there is plenty of good evidence that he did—then all of his followers who know him as Lord and Savior will also rise to eternal life on the last day.
If Jesus actually conquered death, then there is no news that is more important for all human beings to hear and to reflect upon. Easter really matters.
(Originally posted in seven parts in March and April 2017: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7.)
Reflections: Your Turn
What do you consider to be the strongest evidence for Jesus’s resurrection? How would you order the evidence in making a cumulative case? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.