“If Jesus Christ conquered sin and death—and the empty tomb is proof He did—then there is no dark thing in your heart that He is not also able to defeat.” ~Paul David Tripp
Easter serves as a day of celebration for Christians. For, three days after a highly visible and gruesome death on a wooden cross, Jesus rose:
1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; 5 and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead? 6 He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, 7 saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” 8 And they remembered His words, 9 and returned from the tomb and reported all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles. 11 But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened (Luke 24:1-12, NASB).
He is risen! Christ’s resurrection is the basis for Christianity. The fact that Jesus overcomes death on a cross—the fact that He conquers death—is what imparts credibility to His claim as the Son of God. Quite simply, to be Christian means that you believe in Jesus’ resurrection. Without His resurrection, there is no basis for the Christian faith. Without the resurrection, Jesus would not be the Christ of biblical prophecy. Subsequently, there would be no reason to believe, and there would be no justification to hope without belief in a sovereign Lord. As Paul says to the church in Corinth, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14, ESV).
Therefore, the first question that must be answered before all others as it pertains to Christianity is this: Did Jesus rise from the dead? To be a follower of Jesus depends, in so many ways, as to whether or not we believe that the resurrection is a fallacy or that the event signifies a major revelation Truth—the fulfillment of God’s promise.
What I present herein, is evidence that supports the resurrection; while considering the validity of common objections and rebuttals. Those who don’t believe in the resurrection may find that their position is counter to the evidence. But, even to those nonbelievers who read what follows, don’t take my words and thoughts alone as an argument for, or against, the Christian faith. Rather, such a serious decision warrants a thorough, personal investigation. One should not accept or refute any life-changing truths without first making a personal effort to examine the evidence and understand its origin. Consider the following wise words from the apocryphal book of Sirach: “Do not find fault before you investigate; examine first, and then criticize” (Sirach 11:7).
This post, at most, should be considered a cursory examination that can, at best, serve as a starting point. A full-blown examination of evidence would be a much, much longer writing.
Evidence for the resurrection revolves around the following four reasons to believe:
- The empty tomb
- The fulfillment of biblical prophecies
- The accounts of eye witnesses
- The changed lives of those involved
Each of the following sections will focus on one of these reasons. Let us start at the first point of reason for the resurrection following the crucifixion, the empty tomb; investigating its merit in contrast to counter-arguments (e.g. objections and rebuttals).
EVIDENCE OF THE EMPTY TOMB
After Jesus’ death on the cross, the Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, asked Pilate for Jesus’ body; burying Jesus in his own tomb:
38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body. 39 Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there (John 19:38-42, NASB).
While I’m not going to delve into its historicity, there is ample evidence of Jesus’ crucifixion; including non-Christian sources. And if Christ was buried in a tomb, and there was a body in the tomb, the Roman and Jewish leaders would have made sure that everyone knew that Jesus was, without a doubt, dead. Therefore, for brevity’s sake, I’m not going to focus on the historicity of the empty tomb. Rather, I’m going to focus on addressing the two most common objections used by atheists against the Christian reason for the empty tomb (i.e. resurrection).
First Objection: The Swoon Theory
The swoon theory suggests that Jesus wasn’t dead when he was placed in the tomb. This objection is baseless when you consider that Jesus is both scourged and crucified before having his body placed in the tomb.
Crucifixion may have been the cruelest and most punishing means of execution for anyone at any point in known history. The condemned would need to carry the patibulum (or cross-arm)—a rough and splintered wood beam of 7 to 8 feet in length and weighing as much as 100 pounds—to their place of execution. The nails used in nailing the condemned to the cross were 3/4 inch wide and between 6 to 8 inches in length. Two nails were hammered through the wrists (which were considered part of the hand), as the palms of the hands weren’t capable of supporting the condemned’s body weight. A third nail was hammered through both feet, with the condemned’s knees bent. As it became more difficult to breath, the condemned would push themselves up on the nail to breathe; causing excruciating pain. And Jesus was scourged before he was crucified!
Scourging involved whips with multiple leather lashes. These lashes would have pieces of metal or bone attached to them; so that flesh would be torn from the person being scourged. Moreover, as Jesus was accused of blaspheming—claiming to be the king of the Jews and the Son of God—a crown of thorns was placed on his head. These thorns were 1 to 2 inches in length, and would have penetrated flesh and bone. The scourging alone may have been enough to kill Jesus when considering the disfigurement foretold by Isaiah:
Just as many were astonished at you, My people,
So His appearance was marred more than any man
And His form more than the sons of men (Isaiah 52:14).
When bearing in mind the amount of blood loss and open wounds Jesus would’ve incurred through the scourging and crucifixion He received, to believe that He could survive without medical attention in a tomb for days is absurd. Moreover, to come down from the cross, Jesus’ chest was speared to verify His death (. Otherwise, to speed up the death of those being crucified, the Romans would have broken their legs. Thus, there really is no possibility that Jesus was alive at the time that He was taken down from the cross.
And with the fickle mob wanting Jesus dead, is it reasonable in any way to believe that those watching His crucifixion wouldn’t have noticed if He was still alive when removed from the cross? While many of those reading this possess minimal exposure with death or the dead, crucifixions were common during this time. The Romans used crucifixion as a deterrent for crimes and provincial insurrection, conducting them in visible and public locations (e.g. high traffic thoroughfares, elevated places). With the high-profile nature of Jesus’ crucifixion, and considering the masses that watched Jesus being crucified, there is no way that He was swooning following His crucifixion.
Second Objection: The Stolen Body Theory
The stolen body theory suggests that the disciples stole Jesus’ body from the tomb. Really? According to scripture, this objection is a fabrication of truth:
1 Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave. 2 And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. 3 And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. 4 The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men. 5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. 6 He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. 7 Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.”
8 And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples. 9 And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.”
11 Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” 15 And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day (Matthew 28:1-15, NASB).
So let’s get it out in the open. Am I being biased in basing my position on bible scripture? How about we evaluate the claim on its logic. To believe the Roman soldiers’ story, the following questions need to be answered: How could Jesus’ disciples get past Roman soldiers to steal the body? And, if the guards saw the disciples steal the body, why didn’t they stop them?
Roman soldiers were the most trained, equipped, and sophisticated soldiers of their era. Rome’s military superiority is what allowed its empire to stretch as far as it did during that time. How could Jesus’ disciples—none of which were warriors by trade—somehow steal His corpse from a sealed tomb (Matthew 27:66) without casualty or capture? Moreover, we need to acknowledge that the reason for the Roman guards being posted at the tomb was to prevent the theft of Jesus’ body overnight:
62 Now on the next day, the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, 63 and said, “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’ 64 Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.” 66 And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone (Matthew 27:62-66, NASB).
Do you really believe that if Roman soldiers (note the plural) were given such an assignment—with the political environment and the consequences of failure—that they’d fall asleep? And, if they were all to fall asleep, how could any of the soldiers be able to claim that the disciples stole the body?
For the disciples to successfully steal Christ’s body, it would’ve most likely been necessary for them to have compensated the guards. However, is that alternative scenario any more feasible? What would be the benefit of the guards to accept a bribe from the disciples when failure would likely mean their death? Remember, Rome isn’t forgiving when failure increases the possibility of provincial uprising.
Therefore, I find little logical support for the claim that the disciples stole Jesus’ body.
EVIDENCE OF FULFILLED PROPHECIES
“Truth can never be told so as to be understood and not be believed.” ~William Blake
“I am God’s Son. Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father” (John 10:36-37).
As Christians, we are to consider the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God. Moreover, we believe that Jesus Christ is the Word manifest; meaning that everything in the Bible points—in one form or another—to Christ. Regardless of what one considers to represent biblical, messianic prophecies (I’ve seen various counts in the sources I’ve researched), Jesus fulfills them all. The statistical probability for such an individual to exist may be nearly as miraculous as rising from the dead! Yet, the resurrection is that very thing that confirms that Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, the Christ. That is why individuals sometimes say that everything in the bible points to the cross.
Outside of Jesus foretelling His own resurrection (Matthew 20:17; Mark 14:58; Luke 24:44; John 2:19), there are many messianic prophecies from the Old Testament fulfilled that can now be seen as foreshadowing the events of His crucifixion and resurrection. Below are a sampling of these fulfilled prophecies:
Some may discredit the validity of the New Testament; noting that the books of the New Testament were written after the Old Testament books. Subsequently, couldn’t the writers of the New Testament books create (i.e. fabricate) stories that fulfilled prophecies in the Old Testament books?
A prophecy by its definition foretells a future event. Therefore, any books or documents that would’ve confirmed a prophecy’s fulfillment would’ve had to have followed the scriptures that introduced the prophecy. That’s just how the progression of time works.
For those adamant skeptics, I doubt there is much that can be said to completely convince them that the New Testament accurately documents real events. What can be stated is that many scholars believe that the book of Acts (a key book of the New Testament) possesses a high level of historicity, with events and places appearing to match up with the times and places as documented. In examining the evidence, famous archaeologist, Sir William Ramsay, found the book of Luke and Acts (which Luke is believed to have written) are historically accurate. Ramsey, referring to Luke, says, “This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”
Thus, places, public figures, and events in the New Testament can be reasonably assumed to be accurate as much as can be ascertained at present. But, for sake of argument, say we want to posit that the stories of the New Testament are fabricated to fulfill prophecies. Then, we must agree that the disciples (or their adherents) were some of the most brilliant writers in history. For it would necessitate a truly extraordinary writer to fabricate stories where Jesus fulfills—through the events of His life—all of the Old Testament’s messianic prophecies. And, the disciples do something that I’ve never seen in any work of fiction; position themselves on multiple occasions as cowards and fools—unworthy of Jesus’ love for them. Though, the resurrection changes them. But before talking about those changes, let’s first discuss the evidence of the resurrection offered through eye witness accounts.
EVIDENCE OF EYE WITNESS ACCOUNTS
3 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3, NASB).
Now, to be clear, there were no witnesses to the moment of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus’ body was prepared for burial and lain in a sealed tomb. Rather, there were witnesses of Jesus being risen from the dead. For a period of forty days following His resurrection, Jesus made numerous public appearances, and was seen by many. And the testimonies of these witnesses were written by individuals who had personally seen Jesus’ (i.e. Matthew, John, Paul), or who had interviewed eye witnesses (i.e. Luke, Mark). Further, these accounts were written while most of these witnesses were still alive and could corroborate their testimonies.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul shares what may well be the first Christian creed; while listing many eye witnesses to the risen Christ:
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. 6 After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; 7 then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; 8 and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, NASB).
But anyone can make a claim to have seen the miraculous, right? What provides words veracity? Don’t words gain credibility when they are accompanied by corresponding action? And it is such action—the changed lives of these witnesses—that I believe provides the greatest evidence of Christ’s resurrection.
THE EVIDENCE OF CHANGED LIVES
18 And it happened that while He was praying alone, the disciples were with Him, and He questioned them, saying, “Who do the people say that I am?” 19 They answered and said, “John the Baptist, and others say Elijah; but others, that one of the prophets of old has risen again.”20 And He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered and said, “The Christ of God.” 21 But He warned them and instructed them not to tell this to anyone, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day.”
23 And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. 24 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it (Luke 9:18-24, NASB).
The witness accounts of Jesus’ followers begin as one would suspect. As Jesus is being persecuted and crucified, they run and hide; fearful of following Christ to death. Once Mary finds the empty tomb and sees Jesus, the other disciples refuse to believe her (Mark 16:9-11). Then, two of the disciples encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and the others don’t believe them (Luke 24:13-35). Shortly thereafter, Jesus appeared to eleven of His twelve disciples. The one disciple who wasn’t present, Thomas, doubted their claims:
24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:24-25, NASB).
Eventually, Jesus showed Himself to Thomas as well (John 20:26-29). The New Testament documents the fear and doubt of Jesus’ disciples during and immediately following the crucifixion. Yet, once they become witnesses to the resurrection, they become bold in the Lord, no longer fearing death:
1 As they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, 2 being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3 And they laid hands on them and put them in jail until the next day, for it was already evening. 4 But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.
5 On the next day, their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem; 6 and Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of high-priestly descent. 7 When they had placed them in the center, they began to inquire, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people, 9 if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health. 11 He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:1-12, NASB).
The twelve disciples belief in the resurrection, and in Jesus Christ as Lord, led to most of them dying as martyrs. Only John died of natural causes—as an exile (see chart below):
And then there was Paul, who, prior to his conversion was known as Saul of Tarsus. Paul met Jesus on Damascus road as he was on his way to persecute Christians (Acts 9:1-9). A man hellbent on killing the Christian movement, after meeting Jesus, Paul became its greatest ambassador to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). Eventually, after five missionary trips throughout the Roman Empire, Paul was likely beheaded in Rome for his faith. The Roman Empire was under the rule of Nero at the time—and was known for his persecution of Christians.
Many of these persecutions are historically documented.
Thus, consider: Do you believe these men concocted stories about the resurrection that left them persecuted and martyred for adhering to it? If the disciples spoke falsely, and considering that many of them were uneducated for their time, how was it that they were able to convince so many others that they had seen Jesus alive—arisen from the dead? Further, why would they share testimonies that were often humiliating? And why would the Gospel authors fabricate a story where women were the first to find the tomb empty; considering the status of women in that culture?
Do the changed lives of these individuals suggest anything other than they truly believed that Christ rose from the dead?
When examining the evidence for the resurrection, I believe that there is ample reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. It’s the one conclusion that aligns with the evidence. However, as with most historical evidence, the opportunity to doubt is available. To be a follower of Christ requires faith. As Jesus shares with Thomas, “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29, NASB).
And if we believe? Then, we must deny ourselves, taking up our crosses daily; following Christ’s leadership (Luke 9:23). Our lives will be forever, and eternally changed:
I have been crucified in Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me (Galatians 2:20, NASB).
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:17, NASB).
Do you believe in the resurrection? Do you have faith in the Lord? And if so, if you answered yes to these questions, do they emanate from you in deed and truth (1 John 3:18)? Are we resurrected through that faith? Are we new creatures?
I pray that it is so.