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On Easter Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus not as fiction, not as a product of wishful thinking, not as a beautiful metaphor, or an existential experience, but as an actual historical event. Jesus died for sins in our place, and then three days later God raised Him bodily from the dead in a transformed physical body, a different mode of existence that stretches the descriptive power of our language to its limits.


Many people in the ancient world understandably had difficulty believing in the first Christians’ claims about Jesus. The resurrection of Christ is a belief that probably shouldn’t be held by any thinking person without sufficient evidence. Therefore, the purpose of this post is to outline some of the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.


Jesus Died


In order for Jesus to rise bodily from the dead He would first have to die. No credible historian believes that Jesus didn’t die on a Roman Cross by crucifixion. Jesus’ crucifixion is mentioned by all four gospels, including the various epistles contained in the New Testament. Jesus’ death is also recorded by non-Christian historians like Tacitus, Josephus and the Jewish Talmud and, therefore, is witnessed to in early historical sources with multiple lines of evidence, including hostile sources (i.e.Talmud). 


Moreover, we know too much about how brutal crucifixion was in the 1st century to seriously deny that Jesus didn’t die. If a Roman soldier failed in his duty, his life would be forfeit so they were highly motivated to accomplish the job. To quote a popular pastor and theologian,


Jesus was crucified, and a professional executioner declared Him dead. To ensure Jesus was dead, a spear was thrust through His side and a mixture of blood and water poured out of His side because the spear burst his heart sac. Jesus’ dead body was wrapped in upwards of one hundred pounds of linens and spices, which, even if He were able to somehow survive the beatings, floggings, crucifixion, and a pierced heart, would have killed Him by asphyxiation. Even if through all of this Jesus somehow survived (which would itself be a miracle), He could not have endured three days without food, water, or medical attention in a cold tomb carved out of rock. In summary, Jesus died.[1]


For reasons like those stated above, it becomes clear that Jesus died on the cross. And it is worth pointing out that to suggest that God would not allow a prophet of His to endure such a humiliating death, shows a profound lack of awareness about the fate that many prophets in the Old Testament endured (see. Hebrews 11). Moreover, implying that God disguised someone to look like Jesus and had that individual crucified in Christ’s place is to accuse God of radical deception, impugning the trustworthiness of His character.


The Tomb Was Empty


Jesus died and was buried in a tomb. Three days later the tomb was found empty. We can be sure of this, as a matter of history, based on these lines of evidence.


First, if you read the Gospels you find that the women discovered the empty tomb.  In the 1st century Judaism women were not allowed to be legal witnesses. Their testimony was not considered valid or taken seriously.


But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment. — Josephus

Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer), also they are not valid to offer. This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman. — Talmud (Rosh Hashannah)

Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women. — Talmud (Sotah)[2]

This is not a very positive view of women, that is for certain! In light of this cultural context, if you are going to create a story about an empty tomb you don’t make women the first eyewitnesses. This is likely a counterproductive detail included by the writer simply because he was committed to telling the truth.  In addition to this point: in the stories surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus you have the leader of the disciples denying Jesus (Peter) and many of the other disciples running away discouraged and hiding fearfully behind closed doors when Jesus is killed. The leaders of the church look like cowards! You don’t include these embarrassing details unless you are a movement really committed to authenticity and telling the truth.


Second, the disciples started preaching about the death and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus was publicly killed and crucified a few weeks earlier. So, at the very least, this required an empty tomb otherwise the opponents of Christianity, which were many, could have just found the tomb and produced the body. ‘Here is your risen Christ!’ Even a skeleton in the tomb would have done the job!


Third, Joseph of Arimathea provided the tomb that was found empty on Easter Sunday. Joseph was a rich member of the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem, called the Sanhedrin, the same council that handed Jesus over to Pilate to be killed. As a result, there was some resentment between the early Christians and the Sanhedrin, which makes it extremely unlikely that the early Christians would create a story that paints a member of the Sanhedrin in such a great light. Moreover, because Joseph was a prominent, well-known man, a burial in his tomb would make it extremely easy to locate by people in Jerusalem, making it impossible that the disciples or women could have repeatedly gone to the wrong tomb.


Fourth, tombs of ancient Rabbis and martyrs were often commentated and celebrated. There is lots of historical evidence for this practice. Noted historian Edwin Yamauchi has uncovered evidence of around fifty would-be prophets and other religious figures whose tombs were enshrined as places of worship and adoration in Palestine around the time of Jesus’ death.[3] There is no record of this happening at Jesus’ tomb and the most reasonably explanation is that the body wasn’t there!


Fifth, the story passed around by the religious leaders who opposed Jesus was that the disciples stole the body. This, of course, assumes an empty tomb.


As a result of these five pieces of evidence (and others not mentioned), we are on good historical grounds when we conclude that the tomb was surely found empty.


The Appearances of Jesus


In 1st Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul passes on to the church in Corinth an early Christian creed that he, himself, picked up while visiting Peter (the leader of the disciples) and James (Jesus’ brother) in Jerusalem (Galatians 1). We know Paul did not produce this creed based on his use of the traditional rabbinic formula for passing on received tradition (‘what I received I passed on to you’), the syntax found therein (non-Pauline phrases), and the formulaic manner of the writing. Historians across the board believe this creed to be genuine and date it to within 2 to 5 years of Jesus’ crucifixion. To have a historical source so close to the events it reports is a piece of data that historians are prone to drool over. That is what we find in 1st Corinthians 15, which reads,


For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 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, the to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.


When Jesus died the disciples were discouraged and fearful. But a few weeks later they remerge as individuals committed to boldly proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus to the point of death. What caused this radical transformation? They encountered the risen Christ! The James mentioned above is likely Jesus’ brother. Remarkably, James didn’t believe in his brother during Jesus’ earthly ministry, an embarrassing detail the Gospel writers wouldn’t have made up. In fact, John 7:5 just states, “For even his own brothers didn’t believe in him.” But we also know as a matter of history that James becomes a leader in the early church (Galatians 1, Acts 15), worshiping his brother as messiah and Lord to the point of eventually dying for that belief.


Jesus’ appearance to the five hundred individuals is also significant because Paul boldly proclaims that many are still alive, which is an invitation to the Corinthians, they can check up on his story. You don’t give people that opportunity if you fabricated a myth!


Most striking perhaps is that fact that Jesus appeared to Paul. Paul hated Christians and was hell-bent on destroying the church. What transformed him from a persecutor of Christians to a pastor, who was willing to endure extraordinary hardship to proclaim the Gospel? Paul claimed it was the resurrection. This also indicates that Jesus didn’t just appear to friends or followers who might have been predisposed to think high and exalted things about Jesus. Christ appeared to skeptics (James) and unbelievers (Paul) and they were convinced based on the reality of the resurrection.


Minimal Facts


Many people in our culture don’t believe the Bible is the word of God. Imagine if, like most people in our culture, we think that the New Testament is a historical writing with some truth and a lot of error. So, do we have to believe in the inspiration of scripture to be confident that the resurrection truly took place as a historical event?  Good question.


There is a scholar named Gary Habermas who has done the most comprehensive investigation of the resurrection to date. Habermas has collected more than 1,400 scholarly works on the resurrection written from 1975 to 2003 by people who approach the Bible as a historical text. These authors all have terminal degrees and some believe in God and some do not; some are Christians, some are not. After surveying all of the literature he has come up with a list of bedrock facts that the vast majority of historians and scholars, across the ideological spectrum, are confident occurred. Here they are[4]:


  1. Jesus died by Roman Crucifixion. 
  2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb.
  3. Soon afterwards the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent, having lost hope.
  4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his burial.
  5. The disciples had experiences that they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.
  6. Due to these experiences, the disciples’ lives were transformed. They were even willing to die for their belief.
  7. The disciples preaching about the resurrection took place in the city of Jerusalem shortly after Jesus died and was buried.
  8. The gospel message centered on the preaching of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
  9. James, the brother of Jesus who was originally skeptical about Jesus, was converted and became a leader of the church in Jerusalem
  10. Saul of Tarsus, an enemy of the church, had an experience he believed to be about the risen Christ.


These are the facts that people have to explain historically. And individuals, both scholars and your everyday skeptics have tried and tried to explain this data without resorting to God’s miraculous intervention. The chart below provides us with the most frequently offered suggestions:[5]



Jesus died

Jesus rose



Jesus died

Jesus didn't rise— apostles deceivers apostles myth-makers



Jesus died

Jesus didn't rise—apostles myth-makers



Jesus didn’t die




Jesus died

Jesus didn’t rise - apostles deceived




As philosopher Peter Kreeft points out, all of these options are logically possible (even the first one) so they must all be investigated historically. In what follows we will explore the non-miraculous explanations.


Conspiracy Theory


The disciples stole the body. They perpetrated a hoax. They were deceivers. They made up the appearances of Jesus! The entire world has been changed by a lie! Is this going to work as an explanation?


Chuck Colson started Prison Fellowship, a ministry to prisoners. Colson was a part of President Nixon’s administration and he was involved in the Watergate scandal and the attempted cover up, for which he was imprisoned himself. Here is what he writes about Watergate:


Watergate involved a conspiracy to cover up, perpetuated by the closest aids to the President of the United States—the most powerful men in America, who were intensely loyal to their president. But one of them, John Dean, turned states evidence that is, testified against Nixon, as he put it, "to save his own skin"—and he did so only two weeks after informing the president about what was really going on—two weeks! The real cover-up, the lie, could only be held together for two weeks, and then everybody else jumped ship in order to save themselves. Now, the fact is that all that those around the President were facing was embarrassment, maybe prison. Nobody's life was at stake.


But what about the disciples? Twelve powerless men, peasants really, were facing not just embarrassment or political disgrace, but beatings, stonings, and execution. Every single one of the disciples insisted, to their dying breaths, that they had physically seen Jesus bodily raised from the dead.


Don't you think that one of those apostles would have cracked before being beheaded or stoned? That one of them would have made a deal with the authorities? None did.[6]


This is a long quote, but the insight provided is worth pondering because it provides us with the first significant problem facing any one who sincerely proposes that the disciples were part of a conspiracy.


First, conspiracies break down under threat of imprisonment or worse, death, but the disciples proclaimed the resurrection until their deaths. People die for things they believe to be true, or for other various noble reasons, but no one dies for something they know to be false.


Jim Warner Wallace is a cold case detective who appears on dateline; in fact, around the show they call him the ‘evidence whisperer’. Jim writes this:


Many people are willing to die for what they don’t know is a lie. Martyrdom doesn’t confirm the truth, especially when the martyrs don’t have first-hand access to the claim for which they’re dying. But this wasn’t the case for the disciples of Jesus. They were in a unique position: they knew if the claims about Jesus were true. They were present for the life, ministry, death and alleged resurrection of Jesus. If the claims about Jesus were a lie, the disciples would have known it (in fact they would have been the source of the lie). That’s why their commitment to their testimony was (and is) so compelling. Unlike the rest of us, their willingness to die for their claims has tremendous evidential value. In fact, the commitment of the apostles confirms the truth of the resurrection.[7]


Second, the disciples didn’t have the motivation to tell this lie or create this story. They didn’t get money, sex or power – the three things that motivate most deception and crime.


Third, the disciples didn’t have the moral character of liars. Jesus’ disciples, from all the evidence we have, were transformed by the resurrection into selfless men who served and loved the poor and provided us with some of our greatest moral teaching.


Fourth, the disciples believed that hell existed and that leading people to worship false gods put your soul at peril. Eternal torment is strong motivation to tell the truth if you believe in it and they did!


Fifth, a conspiracy like this would be dumb. The disciples were, at times, thick headed, but they weren’t this dumb! An early church writer, Eusebius, put this fictitious speech in the mouths of the disciples:


Let us band together to invent all the miracles and resurrection appearances which we never saw and let us carry the shame even to death! Why not die for nothing? Why dislike torture and whipping inflicted for no good reason? Let us go into all the nations and overthrow their institutions and denounce their gods! Even if we don’t convince anybody, at least we’ll have the satisfaction of drawing down on ourselves the punishment for our own deceit.[8]


Can we agree that, whatever happened, the disciples were at least sincere and not perpetuating a conspiracy? The conspiracy theory just doesn’t make sense. So, in your mind can you travel back to the chart above and draw an imaginary line through the conspiracy theory option – it is a dead end.




Is the story of Jesus’ resurrection simply a legend? There is much that could be written about this suggestion. For example, one could argue that there wasn’t enough time for legend to accumulate around the person of Jesus when these resurrection stories were first being told. There were still eyewitnesses alive, both favorable and hostile to Jesus, that could have contradicted false reportage.  You could also point out the accounts don’t contain the literary characteristics of legendary material. However, the truth is, the legend theory is simply the conspiracy theory repackaged. Here is what the disciples say about their own writing:


For we did not follow clever devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eye-witnesses of his majesty.” (2nd Peter 1:16)


“That which we have heard from the beginning, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the word of life.” 1st John 1:1


The disciples claim that they were not making up stories, so to accuse them of fabricating tall tales is to call them liars and we are right back at the conspiracy theory. We’ve already seen that doesn’t work. So let’s cross that off the list.




Is it possible that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross? No, for the many reasons we listed earlier in this article. The Romans were very accomplished at killing people on a cross. Moreover, this is also just a repackaging of the conspiracy theory because all of the disciples claimed that Jesus died. And the conspiracy theory is a dismal failure as an explanation for the concrete historical data surrounding the Easter event.


Hallucination or Grief-Induced Vision


Is it possible that the disciples weren’t deceivers; rather, they were simply deceived themselves? The disciples were sincere, but they were sincerely wrong about what they thought they experienced. The certainly believed they had real appearances of Jesus, but they really just underwent hallucinations, or grief induced visions. Perhaps Peter was so torn up about denying Jesus and his death that he conjured up this mental projection of Christ that gave him peace, which he then shared with the disciples and they had similar experiences. The disciples had a resurrection of the heart or something. Does this work as an explanation of the data listed above?


First, hallucinations or visions don’t explain the empty tomb. If the appearances were just hallucinations, Jesus’ body would still be in the tomb and the enemies of the movement would have just produced the body.


Second, hallucinations rarely, if ever, transform an individual’s life. I know of no historical record of a sane, stable person dying for a hallucination.


Third, a hallucination doesn’t explain the appearances of Jesus to groups of people. Hallucinations are not group events, they are individual occurrences and you don’t share hallucinations just like you don’t share dreams.


In the relevant literature, do you know which group is most likely to experience hallucinations? The answer is not teenagers on acid or mushrooms, though that example would work for this illustration. The group of people most likely to have a hallucination is senior adults bereaving the loss of a loved one – in 39 percent of the cases they sensed the presence of their loved one in the room. Only 7 percent have a visual perception of their loved one. In the group most vulnerable to hallucinations only 7 percent have a visual perception, so it is very rare and it is never shared. Therefore, since we know of no group hallucination ever occurring on record, it is extremely unlikely that one could account for the appearances of Jesus to groups of individuals, like the 12 disciples.[9]


Fourth, Jesus’ appearances happened to all different types of people, with different psychological make-ups, in all different places, at all different times of the day. Everything we know about studying hallucinations tells us that they don’t occur in this manner.


Fifth, the disciples touched Jesus and ate with him. Hallucinations don’t eat fish at the dinner table in front of a group of people.


Sixth, a hallucination doesn’t explain the appearance to the apostle Paul who was not predisposed to have a grief-induced vision, or some other type of subjective projection, of Jesus.


Seventh, this theory doesn’t explain why the disciples used the language of resurrection to explain their visionary encounters because the word resurrection in 1st century Judaism meant a transformed physical body at the end of history, a re-embodiment after death.[10]


Eight, a hallucination or vision, as stated above, is a subjective experience with no objective reality. The Greek word translated as ‘appeared’ is ophthe, which refers more naturally to an objective reality seen by the disciples, rather than a subjective experience only accessible by an individual. The Greek word horama is more likely to be used in the case of a subjective vision.[11]


Ninth, the New Testament literature is careful to distinguish between the resurrection appearances of Jesus, which were of a bodily and physical nature, to later subjective visions of Jesus. For example, compare Paul’s encounter with Jesus, which was clearly objective because his traveling companions witnessed something occurring (a light and a voice), with the vision of Jesus that Stephen had while he was being stoned, which was only noticeable to him. A resurrection appearance is clearly distinguished from a later vision of Jesus by all the New Testament writers. This indicates that the disciples knew about experiences like visions, but that is not the language they used when describing what happened on Easter Sunday.  


All of the above can feel a bit like over kill, but I want to convey that this naturalistic explanation is extremely inadequate which, of course, leaves us with the only explanation that the church has ever offered; Jesus died and three days later God raised him bodily from the dead!


Another Option


An individual, after reaching this point in the article, could always shrug their shoulders and say, ‘well, I don’t know what happened, but I know the Christian explanation couldn’t happen!’ In response I want to simply ask, ‘how do you know that’? Is it because resurrections don’t normally happen? The disciples knew that as well. They knew dead people stayed dead. That is why Jesus rising from the dead was such a big event!


When one is confronted with the dismal failure of all the non-miraculous explanations of the bedrock historical data, you are faced with three different, but interdependent, issues: the philosophical issue, the historical matter and the personal response.


The philosophical issue is, ‘are miracles possible’? And, if God exists, miracles are certainly possible. 


The historical question is, ‘are miracles actual?’ ‘Have they happened in history?’ And, through the course of this article, we have seen that the best explanation for all the relevant evidence is that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead.


The personal question is the crux of the issue: If an individual doesn’t believe in God, they will resist the conclusion of this article, if an individual believes in God, but doesn’t want to follow Jesus, they will resist the resurrection hypothesis as well. Both of these gut responses tell an individual a lot about their psyche and worldview commitments, but it still doesn’t discount the fact that the resurrection is the best explanation of the historical data. As Cambridge historian, C.F.D. Moule, writes,


The birth and rapid rise of the Christian church…remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the church itself.[12]


Or as N.T. Wright, who wrote a 700-page book on the resurrection, claims,


The easiest explanation by far is that these things happened because Jesus really was raised from the dead, and the disciples really did meet him, even though his body was renewed and transformed…The resurrection of Jesus does in fact provide a sufficient explanation for the empty tomb and the meetings with Jesus. Having examined all the possible hypotheses I’ve read about anywhere in literature, I think it is also a necessary explanation.[13]




This article has failed to provide the reader with other significant historical evidence for the resurrection including: the first disciples imparting the saving significance to Jesus’ death, a theological move that would be nonsensical and absurd apart from the resurrection occurring, or their surprising reworking of the standard Jewish messianic expectations that looked for a political military leader overthrowing the Romans, not a suffering servant, dying on a cross and being vindicated by a resurrection.


Space doesn’t permit me to discuss the first disciples changing their day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, overthrowing centuries of religious observance, or the radical mutation that took place in their beliefs about the Jewish law in light of Jesus. On and on we could go and if one thinks the above mutations that occurred in the Jewish worldview of Jesus’ followers are insignificant or humdrum, that just shows profound ignorance about the religious life of Jewish people in 1st century Palestine. To make these significant changes in their theology and their understanding of the nature of God, apart from the resurrection actually occurring, is very difficult to understand.


To conclude this lengthy article, philosopher Peter Kreeft writes that,


The form of the argument here is similar to that of most of the arguments for the existence of God. Neither God nor the resurrection are directly observable, but from data that are directly observable we can argue that the only possible adequate explanation of this data is the Christian one.[14]







  • Unrepeatable, one-time event ‘in’ history (kicking off Creation)


  • Unrepeatable, one-time event in history (kicking off New Creation)


  • We have never witnessed anything like it


  • We have never witnessed anything like it


  • There is good evidence for God’s existence based on the beginning of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe and the intelligibility of the universe.



  • If there is a God, a miracle like a resurrection is possible.



  • God as an explanation for the existence of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe and the intelligibility of the universe, is a far simpler, far superior explanation than other naturalistic rivals. 



  • The resurrection as an explanation of the empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus, the transformed lives of his first followers and the birth of the Christian church, is a far superior explanation than other naturalistic rivals in simplicity and explanatory scope and power.



  • If there is a God, He created all things out of nothing, which is a greater miracle than a resurrection. So, if you do believe in God, based on the evidence provided by the universe, you already believe in a greater miracle than the resurrection!


  • Given Jesus’ self-claims and ministry of miracles something dramatic occurring after his death is not improbable. When one considers Jesus’ own predictions regarding his death and resurrection it should have been anticipated by the disciples and should be unsurprising to us who have the whole story






[1] Mark Driscoll & Gerry Breshears, Doctrine. p287 


[3] See also William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. p84

[4] Gary Habermas & Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection.

[5] The chart is inspired by Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli’s chapter on the resurrection in the, Handbook of Christian Apologetics. P182



[8] As quoted in William Lane Craig, The Son Rises, p24

[9] This information comes from Dr. Gary Habermas and his writings on the resurrection.  See. The Risen Jesus & Future Hope or Did the Resurrection happen? For Habermas’ debate with Antony Flew.

[10] N.T. Wright makes the point forcibly in his writing. See. The Resurrection of the Son of God.

[11] Dr. Craig Blomberg, 1st Corinthians: The NIV Application Commentary. p.302

[12] C.F. Moule, The Phenomenon o the New Testament. P13

[13] As quoted in Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today. p136

[14] Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics. p. 182