So far in this series we have determined that the evidence scientifically observed in the natural world points to a supernatural, intelligent, moral being who created the universe. The description of this being roughly corresponds to the common description of God in the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The purpose of this post is to look at the evidence that Christianity is true, rather than Judaism or Islam. While there are multiple lines of evidence for the truth of Christianity, for the sake of brevity I will focus on the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.
The Apostle Paul used the resurrection as testable evidence for the truth of the gospel.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead,how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead,then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God thathe raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile andyou are still in your sins. Then those also whohave fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only,we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8, 12-20, ESV
If the resurrection did not happen then the Christian faith is futile and [Christians] are still in [their] sins. But, if Jesus did raise from the dead everything that He claimed about Himself was true. Jesus did not claim to be a mere teacher or prophet, but He actually claimed to be God incarnate.
Some may be surprised to learn that the resurrection of Jesus has been thoroughly investigated by scholars. It might also surprise some that not all of these scholars are Christians. Many New Testament historians are skeptical of Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus. According to Dr. Gary Habermas, nearly all New Testament historians–from the most skeptical atheists to the most devout Christian believers agree on the following points:
1. Jesus died when He was crucified by the Romans.
2. He was buried.
3. When He died, the disciples were extremely discouraged, and abandoned all hope that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
4. The tomb was found empty soon after Jesus’s burial.
5. The disciples experienced what they believed were real, actual appearances of the resurrected Jesus.
6. As a result of these experiences, the disciples were completely transformed. They believed in their experiences so strongly that they were willing to die for their beliefs.
7. The public testimony and the preaching of the resurrection began early on; in fact, almost immediately.
8. The disciples publicly testified that Jesus had risen again in Jerusalem–the same city where Jesus had just been crucified.
9. The preaching of the death and resurrection of Jesus was the central message of the gospel.
10. Sunday, the day Jesus was reported to have risen from the dead, became primary day of Christian worship.
11. James, the brother of Jesus, was converted when he believed he saw the risen Jesus. During the time of Jesus’s ministry, James did not believe Jesus was the Messiah.
12. A few years later, Saul of Tarsus believed he saw the risen Jesus and became a Christian believer.
Virtually all New Testament historians agree on these points, even scholars who are skeptical of Christianity. This is important to remember because these are not just any skeptics. The skeptics are highly trained in order to test the reliability of ancient documents.
The only way non-Christian New Testament scholars avoid admitting that Christianity is true is by saying that Jesus’s disciples only thought He was raised from the dead. However, the alternative theories proposed to explain how he did not rise from the dead don’t hold water.
When the disciples thought they saw a risen Jesus, were they actually hallucinating? There are at least two obvious flaws with this theory. First of all hallucinations are only experienced by individuals–not entire groups of people. We know from various accounts in the New Testament that He appeared first of all to Mary Magdalene and the other women who came to His tomb early on the Sunday morning after His crucifixion. He appeared to the twelve on several occasions. Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 15 mentions this, and also states that He appeared to over 500 people at one time, as well as to His brother James, and a few years later to Paul himself.
The other major flaw in the hallucination theory is that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. Remember, virtually all New Testament scholars agree on this. If the risen Jesus was a hallucination where did the body go? If the empty tomb was a hallucination why didn’t the authorities exhume Jesus body and publicly display it in Jerusalem for everyone to see?
What if the disciples mistakenly went to the wrong tomb? That’s not likely. The Jews (including Jesus’s disciples) knew exactly where the tomb was. It was one of their tombs! In fact, it was the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. The site of the tomb was well known to the Jews. In fact, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” were present when they laid Him in the tomb (Matthew 27:61).
It was also well known to the Romans, who posted their own soldiers at the tomb. This leads us directly to one of the same issues the hallucination theory had. If Jesus did not raise from the dead, the Romans would simply have ordered their soldiers to open the tomb and parade Jesus’s crucified body around Jerusalem, proving that Jesus was still dead.
Even if the disciples somehow got mixed up and went to the wrong tomb, this would explain the empty tomb, but not the subsequent appearances of Jesus of Nazareth alive. The empty tomb was just one of the historical events agreed upon by skeptical and believing New Testament historians alike. Immediately after finding the empty tomb most of the disciples lost all hope in Jesus.
In fact, when the empty tomb was discovered, Mary Magdalene thought someone (perhaps the Romans or Jesus’s enemies) had stolen Jesus’s body. She immediately ran and told Peter and John, and the three of them rushed back to the tomb. Upon seeing the empty tomb, only John believed. John explained that “as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (John 20:1-10)
Mary Magdalene did not believe Jesus had risen from the dead until she saw Him alive (John 20:11-18). When she told the other disciples she had seen Him they did not believe her. In fact, her “words seemed to them an idle tale.” Later on He appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, but they were kept from recognizing Him at first. He rebuked them for their unbelief, saying, “O foolish ones, slow of heart to believe all the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” After their eyes were opened, and they realized Who they had been speaking with, Jesus disappeared. By the time they reached the Eleven, they were discussing how Jesus had appeared to Peter. These men had not been convinced by the empty tomb, and remained in doubt until Jesus personally appeared to them (you can read this account in Luke 24:13-35).
At this point, Jesus appeared and some of them still did not believe! They actually thought they were seeing a spirit–Jesus’ ghost. Jesus was forced to rebuke His doubting disciples once again. He said, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Some of them still didn’t believe until after He had eaten some fish and opened their minds to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:36-49).
How embarrassing! Jesus’ own disciples, who had lived with Him for three years had trouble believing He had risen from the dead, even as He stood in front of them. They had been taught by the greatest Bible teacher of all time, but they failed to understand the Scriptures. No wonder Jude advised us, “Have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:22).
Maybe Jesus didn’t actually die? Maybe He only fainted? In my humble opinion, this is the most ridiculous theory attempting to explain how Jesus did not raise from the dead. Crucifixion was the most brutal method of execution in Jesus’s day (and probably still is in our day). After Jesus was brutally beaten–by the temple guard, Herod’s soldiers, and Roman soldiers–the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke say that Jesus was not strong enough to carry His cross all the way to Golgotha (it had to be carried by one Simon of Cyrene).
At Golgotha He was nailed to His cross with six-inch iron spikes. In addition to massive blood loss from the nail wounds, the crown of thorns, and scourging with the cat of nine tails whip, Jesus slowly and painfully died as he drowned in his own bodily fluids. The gospels record that the Roman soldiers were about to break His legs (to keep Him from breathing by pushing Himself up) and determined this was unnecessary because He was already dead. These guys were professional killers, and knew a dead body when they saw one. However, just to be sure they rammed a spear into His side, piercing His heart, and “at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34).
If you would like an even more detailed account, written by medical doctors, please refer to “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ”.
If nothing else, watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion or Jesus of Nazareth. Ask yourself, “Do I really think Jesus lived through all that? Really?!?” Honestly, it is a lot more likely He rose from the dead, than that He survived Roman crucifixion. If you actually believe Jesus just fainted, I seriously have to question whether your skepticism is based on logic and reason, or simple bias against Christianity.
The disciples must have stolen Jesus’s body. The last best hope of the New Testament scholar who is also skeptical of Christianity is that the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead, but were deceived. If the disciples were not deceived, but were the deceivers, this contradicts what virtually all New Testament scholars believe to be true. The evidence simply does not leave this option open to us.
If the disciples were the sort that would make up stories, what was their motive? Did they want to be violently persecuted, or even executed for their testimony? That is what happened. Every single apostle, except John, died for their gospel account. It isn’t that they didn’t try to kill John either. History records that they tried to execute him by boiling him in hot oil. He just wouldn’t die! They ended up imprisoning him on the island of Patmos, where he had visions recorded as the book of Revelation.
If they were lying about Jesus, they could have saved their lives by simply recanting their testimony. No liar is willing to die for a lie. Therefore, any theory that questions the integrity or sincerity of the apostles just doesn’t make sense.
Therefore, we need to be clear from the start that the theory that Jesus’ disciples stole His body from the tomb is not based on good scholarship. The genesis of this theory is actually recorded in the gospel of Matthew.
Matthew 27:62-66 records that after Jesus was crucified and buried, the chief priests and the Pharisees met with Pilate and requested that Roman guards be placed at the tomb for three days, pointing out that Jesus Himself said, “After three days I will rise.” They explained to Pilate that they actually anticipated Jesus’ disciples would attempt to steal the body and report that He had risen from the dead. Pilate ordered that a guard (in our terminology, more like a squad than a single guard) go and make the tomb secure.
The New Testament does not specify the number of guards that went, but we know there had to be more than one. After the resurrection Matthew 28:11 records, “some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place.” We see from this verse that the word translated as “guard” clearly means more than one man. Religious art generally depicts two guards, but we have good reasons to believe there were more. Since “some” of the guard reported to the chief priests, not all of them were there, and there was more than one with the chief priests, so there had to have been at least three. We know from historians that Roman protocol required at least four guards. However, since they were expecting Jesus’s disciples to steal the body, they probably posted at least 11 men, for the 11 remaining core disciples.
It is likely that even more guards were posted than that. Typical military strategy is to use overwhelming force–two or three guards for each apostle. There were more disciples than the 11 chosen apostles, since the Bible records that great crowds followed Jesus. He had at least enough followers to appoint 72 who were trustworthy enough to enter towns ahead of Him to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom (see Luke 10:1-12). The Roman military probably planned for enough disciples to arrive to put up a good fight. Once again, they would have wanted an overwhelming force whether the opposing force was expected to be 11, 72, or even more. I would not be surprised if they had at least posted the Roman equivalent of a platoon at the tomb.
The disciples, who were not trained for combat (with the possible exception of Simon the Zealot), would have had to fight off an overwhelming force of elite Roman soldiers. Not a bit likely.
Going back to Matthew’s account (specifically Matthew chapter 28), some of the guard went to the chief priests to tell them what happened. The chief priests assembled with the elders and decided to pay the Roman soldiers to propagate a lie. They advised the soldiers, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” (Matthew 28:13-14)
Matthew’s account is believable for several reasons. First of all, it would have highly unlikely, if not impossible, for a group of Jewish peasants to overrun an overwhelming force of the most highly trained soldiers in the world. We have already established this. Second of all, even if the disciples, against all odds, did manage to do this, the consequences would have been dire for that group of Roman guards. If they admitted to sleeping on watch, this would not merely be a stain on Roman pride. Falling asleep on watch was a capital offense in those days. In fact, later on Peter was arrested by Herod, and when he escaped Herod ordered the guards be put to death (Acts 12:19). They needed some additional motivation to tell the people that they fell asleep and the disciples robbed the tomb, whether it actually happened or not.
This explains what the chief priests and elders did. In order to ensure the Roman guards would be willing to spread this lie, they had to pay them a “sufficient sum of money” and reassure them by saying, “If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will… keep you out of trouble.”
Is there any good reason to believe the disciples actually stole the body? No.
In addition to the reasons previously given, if the guards actually fell asleep, how would they know what happened to the body? Anything could have happened while they were sleeping. The disciples could have stolen the body. Or the Pharisees could have stolen the body. Or a flying saucer could have landed and extraterrestrials stole the body. Or *gasp* Jesus actually rose from the dead!
Nope, couldn’t have been that last one! A gaggle of uneducated Jewish commoners must have overrun an elite, overwhelming force of Roman soldiers. They found these highly trained troops asleep on watch, and somehow managed not to wake any of them up when they moved the two ton boulder from the mouth of the tomb. Then the guards told everyone about it, so they must not have been too worried the governor would have them executed.
As far as New Testament scholars are concerned, the chief point of disagreement between Christian believers and skeptics is that the Christian scholars say the disciples had experiences of the risen Jesus, but skeptics say the disciples believed they experienced the risen Jesus. The sincerity of the gospel account is never questioned, but the reality of what happened is questioned by skeptics.
We have examined several theories proposed by skeptics to explain what really happened if Jesus did not raise from the dead. These theories include hallucination, going to the wrong tomb, apparent death, and tomb robbing. When closely examined, none of these theories are adequately supported by evidence or reason. There are other theories we have not examined. We will not examine those theories at this time. I will only say that none of these alternate theories adds up to me. Examine them for yourselves and decide.
In light of what the vast majority of New Testament scholars agree on, I believe the best explanation of the evidence is that Jesus bodily rose from the dead. The alternate explanations given to support the notion that the disciples were deceived are not sound. The evidence does not suggest that the New Testament account is a lie, a legend, or a myth, as some suggest.
There are other scholars with other opinions, such as the members of the controversial Jesus Seminar. However, as Dr. William Lane Craig pointed out in a debate with retired Bishop John Shelby Spong, these scholars are considered “the lunatic fringe” of New Testament scholarship.
Jesus predicted on several occasions that He would suffer and die, but raise again on the third day. The best explanation of scholarly findings on the New Testament is that He did, in fact, raise from the dead.
Jesus’ claim to authority, through which he put himself in God’s place, was . . . blasphemous for Jewish ears. Because of this Jesus was then also slandered before the Roman Governor as a rebel. If Jesus really has been raised, this claim has been visibly and unambiguously confirmed by the God of Israel, who was allegedly blasphemed by Jesus
~ Blaise Pascal
The answer to the question, “Who is the Christian God?” is the triune God revealed in the Bible. The Father sent the Son. The Son took on human form, was unjustly crucified, rose again on the third day, appeared to many, and ascended to the right hand of the Father. He sent the Holy Spirit to indwell His followers until the day of His return. The historical evidence for the resurrection is strong, and points to the truth of Christianity. If Christianity is true then neither Judaism or Islam can be true, since they make differing claims about Jesus of Nazareth. I will leave it to those who want more detail on the subject to research the evidence for themselves.
Some of my readers already know Christianity is true. In fact, they know the risen Savior personally. Some of my readers will not be persuaded by the evidence. Some of my readers were not even aware such evidence existed. I pray that God will reveal Himself to those who seek Him. If Christ was crucified, buried, but rose from the dead on the third day, you may find yourself wondering, “What shall we do?” The answer is the same as it was on the day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”