There is nothing wrong in asking “did the resurrection really happen?” In fact, the whole of Christianity hinges on an empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus Christ – this makes understanding and believing in the truth of the resurrection essential. If Jesus Christ was not resurrected then it renders the whole Christian faith null and void. As Paul says, our faith would be vain:
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:13-17 NIV)
Paul is not mincing his words here – he makes it very clear that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is pivotal. If it did not happen then our faith is meaningless and we are being “false witnesses”. This is the most important question you could ever explore and there is no middle ground available on this subject – either it happened or it didn’t…
Where to start?
At face value, it may seem a little absurd to believe in an event that happened nearly two thousand years. With the resurrection being so critical to the faith of the Christian, there will always be alternative theories to explain this event away. To begin with we need to establish some minimal facts which are generally accepted by both believers and skeptics:
- Jesus died by crucifixion and was buried
- there was an empty tomb and no one ever produced His body
- the disciples saw Jesus resurrected from the dead
- the disciples lives were transformed
So let us begin with some of the naturalistic theories…
Was the body stolen?
Some claim the disciples stole the body from the tomb and then fabricated the story of the resurrection event:
- This would explain the empty tomb but an empty tomb is also evidence for the resurrection.
- Pilate commanded that extra measures were taken to ensure the tomb was sealed and guarded (Matt 27:62-66), it would have been a very difficult task for the disciples to overcome this.
- If the body was stolen, how did the disciples make an apparently living Jesus appear to so many different people?
- The disciples lived the rest of their lives under constant hostility – it seems implausible that they would go through this and endure such horrible deaths for a lie? Especially as the disciples each travelled in different geographical directions and all maintained the historicity of the resurrection on the pain of death.
- The Jews were followers of the Mosaic Law and to fabricate such a lie would have gone against strongly ingrained core beliefs. Furthermore, at the onset of Christianity, the idea of a resurrected Messiah would not have been seen as credible as it would not be believable to either the Jews or Greeks. The Jews would not accept a Messiah who had died and was resurrected and the Greeks had only contempt for a bodily resurrection. If a story was to be made up to start a new movement, it is unlikely that this would have been considered the best option.
This theory is certainly not new, it started immediately after Jesus’ first appearance:
While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priest’s everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day. (Matthew 28:11-15 NIV)
As listed, there are a number of significant problems with the claim that the body was stolen but it is considered a valid theory for many.
Was it a hallucination?
This theory is that through the grief the disciples were suffering, they became delusional and as a result of wishful thinking they experienced hallucinations of Jesus risen from the dead:
- We know there was an empty tomb so what happened to the body?
- Hallucinations do not happen on mass, they are individual experiences – large numbers of people do not experience the same hallucination
- Jesus Christ was seen on more than one occasion by different groups of people.
- The disciples did not expect Jesus to rise from the dead and they were in hiding and demoralised – therefore, a hallucination of this nature is extremely unlikely.
- Even the apostle Thomas was sceptical and became known as ‘doubting Thomas’ because he would not believe until he saw and touched Jesus himself (John 20:24–29). Hallucinations do not have any substance but the account shows Thomas touched Jesus’ side and then believed.
Even on scientific grounds, a mass hallucination is highly improbable – a miracle is more likely.
Did Jesus really die on the cross?
Known as the swoon theory, the idea that Jesus did not really die on the cross. He survived the beating and crucifixion and then appeared to the disciples recovered:
- The Roman’s were professional executioners and this theory requires they were incompetent – they had in fact perfected this form of execution and would have suffered very severe penalties for a mistake. They even stabbed Jesus’ side with a spear for confirmation.
- Did the people watching not suspect anything? Even those who took His body from the cross, clothed Him in His garments and buried Him?
- If Jesus did survive He would have been clinging to life and then was buried, how did He survive in the tomb without water or other supplies, let alone have the strength to remove the stone that sealed the tomb. Furthermore, His appearances afterwards showed perfectly good health!
- The disciples would have gone against their core belief to lie. They would have been able to tell if it was not Jesus on the cross or that He didn’t really die, instead, you see their lives transformed. They would not be willing to die for a lie.
- If we believe this, what is the explanation for the ascension? Jesus disappeared from the historical recorded, if He did not die then we would expect more records of further sightings for many years afterwards.
The points above easily refute this theory.
Were they fooled by an imposter?
Could someone else have taken Jesus’ place in the sightings after His burial? This imposter would have tricked the disciples and others into believing he was really Jesus:
- Why would an imposter do this? What would be the motivation?
- There is no explanation for the empty tomb or the missing body.
- The imposter would have needed to know all about Jesus’ mannerisms to pull this off.
- On the road to Emaus where Jesus recounts all of scripture, would an impostor really be able to pull this off?
- After the resurrection Jesus “shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:2-3), the imposter would have needed the ability to demonstrate evidence that was indisputable.
Again, even if you accept there is a small possibility that this is true, it is still incredibly unlikely.
Has the story been distorted and exaggerated later in time?
This view says Jesus is a wise teacher but say the resurrection is more legend, being added to and exaggerated over time:
- It is said the empty tomb and lack of body prove this is a legend.
- The earliest accounts call on the resurrection as the primary source of evidence.
- The claim has remained consistent from the earliest recording.
The original apostles of Jesus said they saw the risen Jesus. Again, if it was made up, how would you explain the refusal for anyone to admit this?
Is it a myth?
The claim is that the story of Jesus’ resurrection was taken from ancient myths that predated it:
- This is a fairly new theory (19th Century) that was rejected by the scholars of the time but it still keeps resurfacing without any new evidence for the claim.
- Reports in Scripture from the apostles stating they have seen Jesus appear to them and many others after the crucifixion.
- When examining the evidence of the parallel ancient myths there are very little similarities – whether you consider Osirus, Mithra, or any other, their accounts do not mirror Jesus’. This article on GotQuestions details this more – Is Jesus a myth?
- Even if all these parallel accounts where valid it still does not detract from the other overwhelming evidence for Jesus’ resurrection that has precise historical authenticity as well as being substantiated by numerous eyewitness testimonies.
As with any counterclaim the evidence needs to be considered on its own merits. Christians can become extremely worried and sheepish when confronted by such theories – however, once this evidence is studied it is clear that these counterclaims have no foundation and are more far-fetched than accepting the resurrection itself.
Or was Jesus’ resurrection actually a historical event?
Is Scripture accurate about the events of Jesus’ resurrection?
- This accounts for the empty tomb and missing body.
- The resurrection observations make sense and fit in this scenario.
- The disciples willingness to endure such persecution can be fully understood.
- The growth of Christianity also occurred in a very hostile environment – it would have been far easier to give up spreading the Gospel had it not been true.
- It explains the consistent existence of Christianity today, some 2,000 years later, which is rooted in the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ – a powerful event that continues to transform lives.
- However, you would need to accept the supernatural!
Scripture provides us with reliable eyewitnesses testimonies that attest to the fact that there was an empty tomb and the writers saw the risen Christ!
Only one conclusion?
The evidence points to the plausibility of the resurrection, but is admittedly hard to accept. This is because it directly challenges our lives, calling on us to change and accept the message Jesus communicated.
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. (Matthew 28:5-6 NIV)
Jesus Christ made many astounding claims so for Him to make prophecies about His resurrection before his crucifixion is completely in line with His character.
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31 NIV)
He proved His deity by defeating death once and for all! How would you feel if someone said they would die and rise again? You would think they were crazy, but Jesus proved He was anything but crazy by the numerous supernatural powers many witnessed during His ministry.
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:55-57 NIV)
Only Jesus Christ’s second coming will eclipse his first coming – will you be ready for this amazing event? What happened on the cross changed everything – it demands a response!
Do you have any good reason to reject this evidence? It is a hard decision but when we humbly evaluate the evidence there is only conclusion – Jesus Christ died for you on the cross and was resurrected to prove His whole Gospel message. Jesus defeated death – will you follow Him?
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel, you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 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, 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, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 NIV)
Here are some addition resources that you might find useful: