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Was Jesus Really Resurrected?

by Peter Eddington Estimated reading time: 10 minutes. Posted on 9-Mar-2016
Without the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our faith is futile. Do we have historical evidence that it actually happened?

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is foundational to the Christian faith. Without it, we have no interceding high priest with God the Father, no Savior living in us to help us come out of sin, and no hope for our own future resurrection. As the apostle Paul wrote, “If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (1 Corinthians 15:17).

It was not enough that Jesus died for us. He also had to be raised to life again. As Paul also wrote: “For if when we were enemies [living against God] we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10, emphasis added throughout).

A living Savior is vital to Christianity. Yet there is a very strong movement in our society today to mitigate and destroy our Christian heritage—especially belief in the resurrection. Many contend that Jesus was just a man, just a human teacher, and that He never was actually resurrected after His crucifixion.

Ten non-Christian writers mention Jesus within 150 years of His life, helping corroborate the biblical record.

So how can we know that it really happened? There’s a lot of evidence that verifies the accuracy of the New Testament and the validity of Jesus’ resurrection—enough to convince anyone willing to believe.

The New Testament itself is powerful evidence—and we can trust that it has been accurately preserved (for proof, download or request our free study guide Is the Bible True?). And there are many reasons to see it as an accurate record of what actually took place. We look at just six here.

1. Eyewitness testimony

Some of the New Testament books were written by eyewitnesses only a couple decades after the purported events. If the whole story was made up, how credible would that have been? Other witnesses from that time would still have been around—hundreds of them. The writers couldn’t have gotten away with it! Both the Jews and the Romans could have easily discredited the resurrection story—but they didn’t.

The apostle Paul mentions a number of witnesses to Christ’s resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, including other apostles, himself and “over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep”—that is, died.

In their book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (2004), Norman Geisler and Frank Turek quote from an essay titled “The Empty Tomb and the Resurrection” by William Lillie (1965, p. 125), which says of the above passage:

“What gives special historical evidence to the list as historical evidence is the reference to most of the five hundred brethren being still alive. St. Paul says in effect: ‘If you do not believe me, you can ask them.’ Such a statement in an admittedly genuine letter written within thirty years of the event is almost as strong evidence as one could hope to get for something that happened nearly two thousand years ago.”

Besides 1 Corinthians, there are a number of other New Testament books written within 20 to 30 years of Christ’s resurrection. These include the Gospel of Mark, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians and Romans. In fact, since Paul was executed soon after this, we know that all of his letters were written during the lifetime of those who were witnesses to what happened.

2. Women witnesses

All four Gospel writers tell us that women were the first visitors to the empty tomb and the first to learn of the resurrection. But in ancient times women were not considered reliable witnesses in court.

What writer at the time making up a story he wanted people to believe would claim that women discovered the risen Christ? Rather than, “Yes, we manly men found the empty tomb and announced the glorious resurrection of our Savior to the whole world!” it was the ladies who saw Christ first.

Not only that, but the foremost witness among the women was Mary Magdalene, who had once been demon possessed (Luke 8:2). Again, who would make up this kind of story? It is a mark of genuineness.

3. Pharisees and priests converted

Luke records in the book of Acts that there were “Pharisees who believed” and that “a great many of the priests” became part of the early Church (Acts 15:5; Acts 6:7).

Luke was a meticulous historian. He opens his Gospel with reference to eyewitnesses and an expressed intent to present an orderly account to prove the certainty of what he’s writing about (see Luke 1:1-4). And the accounts in his Gospel and Acts have proven historically accurate—even down to the finest details of where cities were located on the map, the depth of the sea at various points and the correct names of towns and officials that have been long forgotten.

So why lie about converts to Christianity when he’s so careful about accuracy in other minor details? Particularly in this case, where exposure would have been devastating? Everyone would have known that Luke was lying if there were not significant converts from the ranks of the Pharisees and priests. And the priests and Pharisees would have proclaimed far and wide that none or very few of them embraced Christianity—that here was more proof of it being a fraud!

More reasonable is that Luke was reporting accurately—which means many Pharisees and priests were convinced Jesus was resurrected.

4. Hush money for the empty tomb

The tomb of Jesus really must have been empty. It became widely known in the region of Judea. Matthew 28:11-15 states:

“Behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, ‘Tell them, “His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.” And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure.’ So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.”

So Matthew’s readers already knew this story of the empty tomb and the bribery. If he were making up the story, it would have been easy to discredit by showing that people had not heard of this. But they had. They were aware that Jesus’ body was gone even though it had been closely guarded.

And if the disciples really did steal the body, how did they get past the men guarding the tomb? These would not have been sleeping on the job, as that was a capital offense. That’s why the Jewish authorities had to pay off the guards and promise to keep them from getting in trouble and executed.

The site of Jesus’ tomb was known to Christians, Jews and Romans, so it could easily have been checked by local skeptics. In fact, nobody—not even the Roman authorities or Jewish leaders—ever claimed that the tomb still contained Jesus’ body. Instead, they were forced to invent the absurd story of the disciples stealing the body from a guarded tomb—a story not even the most skeptical critic now believes.

5. Historically confirmed people

Not only does the New Testament contain historically accurate information and geographical markers, it also refers to some famous people.

Geisler and Turek put it well: “There is no way the New Testament writers could have gotten away with writing outright lies about Pilate, Caiaphas, Festus, Felix, and the entire Herodian bloodline. Somebody would have exposed them for falsely implicating these people in events that never occurred. The New Testament writers knew this, and would not have included so many prominent real people in a fictional story that was intended to deceive. Again, the best explanation is that the New Testament writers accurately recorded what they saw” (p. 225).

Here are some of the historical figures that are mentioned in the New Testament that are also found in non-Christian writings that verify the accuracy: Jesus, Agrippa I, Agrippa II, Ananias, Annas, Aretas, Bernice (wife of Agrippa II), Caesar Augustus, Caiaphas, Claudius, Drusilla, Erastus, Felix, Gallio, Gamaliel, Herod Antipas, Herod Archelaus, Herod the Great, Herod Philip I, Herod Philip II, Herodias, James the brother of Jesus, John the Baptist, Judas the Galilean, Lysanias, Pilate, Quirinius, Porcius Festus, Salome (daughter of Herodias), Sergius Paulus, and Tiberius Caesar.

These names of dozens of key biblical characters are found in other, non-Christian writings of the day—one more way of verifying the accuracy of what we have in our Bible today.

6. Ten non-Christian corroborating sources

There are 10 known non-Christian writers who mention Jesus within 150 years of His life, helping corroborate the biblical record.

These are: Josephus, the Jewish historian for the Roman government; Tacitus, the Roman historian; Pliny the Younger, a Roman politician; Phlegon, a freed slave who wrote histories; Thallus, a first-century historian; Seutonius, a Roman historian; Lucian of Samosata, a Greek satirist; Celsus, a Roman philosopher; Mara Bar-Serapion, a private citizen who wrote to his son; and the Jewish Talmud.

By contrast, over the same 150 years, there are nine non-Christian sources who mention Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor at the time of Jesus’ ministry. So discounting all the Christian sources, Jesus is mentioned by one more source than the Roman emperor. If you include Christian sources, authors mentioning Jesus outnumber those mentioning Tiberius by more than four times.

Geisler and Turek’s book outlines what can be pieced together from the 10 writers, some of whom are decidedly anti-Christian. They attest that Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius Caesar, lived a virtuous life, was a wonder-worker, had a brother named James, was acclaimed to be the Messiah, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate on the eve of the Jewish Passover, accompanied by darkness and earthquake.

They further affirm that His disciples believed He rose from the dead, were willing to die for their belief, spread Christianity rapidly as far as Rome, and denied the Roman gods, instead worshipping Jesus as God (p. 223).

More on this can be found in The Case for the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel (2007, p. 113). Strobel further relates this:

“‘We have better historical documentation for Jesus than for the founder of any other ancient religion,’ said Edwin Yamauchi of Miami University, a leading expert on ancient history. Sources from outside the Bible corroborate that many people believed Jesus performed healings and was the Messiah, that he was crucified, and that despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed he was still alive, worshiped him as God. One expert documented thirty-nine ancient sources that corroborate more than one hundred facts concerning Jesus’ life, teachings, crucifixion, and resurrection” (p. 272).

Yes, it really happened

Can we trust in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Without doubt, the early Christians did, and many of them were witnesses to it.

Strobel summarizes well: “First, the disciples were in a unique position to know whether the resurrection happened, and they went to their deaths proclaiming it was true. Nobody knowingly and willingly dies for a lie.

“Second, apart from the resurrection, there’s no good reason why such skeptics as Paul and James would have been converted and would have died for their faith. Third, within weeks of the crucifixion, thousands of Jews became convinced Jesus was the Son of God and began following him, abandoning key social practices that had critical sociological and religious importance for centuries. They believed they risked damnation if they were wrong.

“Fourth, the early sacraments of Communion [that is, the New Testament Passover] and Baptism affirmed Jesus’ resurrection and deity. And fifth, the miraculous emergence of the church in the face of brutal Roman persecution ‘rips a great hole in history, a hole the size and shape of Resurrection’ ... [The] compelling evidence [is] that Jesus Christ was who he claimed to be—the one and only Son of God” (p. 276).

As Luke recorded Peter declaring: “This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses ... Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:32; Acts 2:36).

May we all thank our Father in heaven that Jesus is not dead, that He is alive, and that while “we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”

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