Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

How in the world do we show that a 2,000-year-old event actually happened? Mary Magdalene didn’t whip out her flip camera and record footage of the resurrected Jesus. So what’s a historian to do?

If the bones of Jesus were found tomorrow, would you walk away from Christianity? You should. Why? Because faith in a dead Jesus is worthless. Even the Apostle Paul says so. In I Corinthians 15:14, he writes, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Did you catch that? The bones of Jesus would make our faith useless.

C’mon Paul, isn’t that kind of harsh? No and here’s why. Imagine a group of people who have dedicated their lives to Peter Pan. They construct a beautiful building to gather in celebration of Pan’s life. They sing songs to him and tell stories about his wonderful deeds. What would you think about such a group? What a waste of life. Peter Pan is a fairy tale. We should feel sorry for such people.

Well, if Jesus did not rise bodily from the grave, then Christianity is a fairy tale. Just like Peter Pan, it’s make believe and Christians are wasting their lives. And what should people think about us? Paul concludes that if Christ hasn’t been raised, “we are to be pitied more than all men” (verse 19).

So, when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, what’s at stake for Christians? Everything.

History 101

How in the world do we show that a 2,000-year-old event actually happened? Mary Magdalene didn’t whip out her flip camera and record footage of the resurrected Jesus. The disciples didn’t snap post-resurrection photos on their iPhones and then upload them to Facebook for all their friends to see. So what’s a historian to do? Two things in particular:

#1—Find the facts.

Historians rely on historical data like archaeology, ancient documents and recorded eyewitness testimony to reconstruct the past. In addition, certain principles guide them in determining which historical accounts are reliable and which are not. For example, if there are several independent sources reporting the same event, that’s pretty reliable history. If those sources are actual eyewitnesses and not secondhand reports, that’s pretty reliable history. If those eyewitness accounts are closer in time to the actual event, that’s pretty reliable history. Given this process of investigation, historians can discover historical facts.

#2—Find the best explanation.

Once the historian has gathered her facts, she looks for an explanation that fits the facts. She has to determine if the facts support an alleged historical event. Sometimes she concludes “yes,” and sometimes “no.” There are plenty of times when there just aren’t enough facts, so the historian simply says, “We don’t know what really happened.” Since there is no video footage for most of human history, the honest historian does her best to the follow the facts to the best possible explanation.

Cold Hard Facts

Do we have any facts that support the historical resurrection of Jesus? Absolutely. And we won’t just use arguments from guys on our side. To make the strongest possible case, we’ll rely on those facts that virtually all scholars who study this subject agree upon, including critics of Christianity. Resurrection scholars Gary Habermas and Michael Licona call this the “minimal facts” approach (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004).

Notice this approach does not require us to defend an error-free Bible. It does not require us to show the Bible is the inspired word of God. Although they’re important issues, inerrancy and inspiration are not essential to our case for the resurrection. Instead, the minimal facts approach lets us build common ground with the critic. Basically, we’re saying to the skeptic, “You show me your historical facts and I’ll show you how they are evidence for the historical resurrection of Jesus.”

So, what are the minimal facts? Habermas and Licona list five:

Fact #1: Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.

Not only is Jesus’ crucifixion recorded in all four gospels, but non-Christian sources report the event too. Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus are just a couple of those sources.

And remember, virtually all scholars accept this fact.

Fact #2: The disciples believed they had seen the risen Jesus.

Scholars recognize two important pieces of evidence for this fact. First, the disciples claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. Paul lists the eyewitnesses in I Corinthians 15:3–8:

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 Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers 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.

By the way, it’s legit to cite the Bible here. Even critical scholars believe I Corinthians is an authentic letter written by Paul. At this point, we’re simply using it as a source of ancient history, not as an inspired book of the Bible. Thus, we have a reliable list of people who believed they saw resurrection appearances of Jesus.

Second, the disciples really believed they had seen Jesus such that it totally transformed them. Jesus, their leader, had been brutally killed before their eyes. Understandably, they split. Peter even denies Jesus three times. But something happened, transforming them from cowards who abandoned Jesus to courageous men who risked life and limb for His message. They didn’t just claim Jesus rose, they really, really believed it.

And remember, virtually all scholars accept this fact.

Fact #3: Saul of Tarsus (Paul), an enemy of the church, converted because he believed he had seen the risen Jesus.

Before his Road-to-Damascus experience, Paul tried to destroy the Christian church. He beat Christians, imprisoned them, and killed them. But suddenly, he converts to Christianity. Why? Paul and Luke both report it was because he believed the resurrected Jesus had appeared to him.

And remember, virtually all scholars accept this fact.

Fact #4: James, the brother of Jesus and a skeptic, converted because he believed he had seen the risen Jesus.

The Gospels tell us James was skeptical of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 3:21; John 7:5). He was unconvinced. However, James eventually converts and is even martyred for his faith in Jesus. What transformed this skeptic into a believer? He believed he saw the risen Jesus. Remember the eyewitness list in I Corinthians 15? Verse 7 tells us “[Jesus] appeared to James.”

And remember, virtually all scholars accept this fact.

Fact #5: The tomb of Jesus was empty.

Where was Jesus publicly executed? In Jerusalem. Where did the disciples start proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection? In Jerusalem. Think about those two facts together. How does Christianity get started if Jesus’ corpse is still in the tomb? It doesn’t. Jewish and Roman leaders simply pull out the dead body and game over. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, the disciples preach the resurrection in the very city Jesus is crucified. That’s only possible if the tomb is empty.

This is the one fact not accepted by “virtually all scholars.” However, Gary Habermas found that about 75% of scholars buy this one and that’s still a large majority.

There you have it—five historical facts that need an explanation.

Colossal Conclusion

What do these facts point to? That Jesus Christ is no longer dead. His resurrection explains all five facts very well. The minimal facts give us solid evidence He has risen indeed. However, that won’t stop the skeptic from offering other explanations. When you encounter one, remember this: just because an alternative explanation is possible, it does not make it probable. Anyone can give a different explanation, but we want one that best fits the facts.

For example, some scholars suggest the disciples stole Jesus’ body. Does that fit the facts? No way. It doesn’t explain the resurrection appearances of Jesus. It doesn’t explain Paul or James’ conversions. Indeed, if the disciples stole Jesus’ body, then they knew his resurrection was a hoax. But why would they die for something they knew was false? They wouldn’t, and thus, we can discard this possible explanation.

Facts are stubborn things. And after looking at the cold hard facts surrounding the end of his life, the best explanation is that Jesus rose bodily from the grave almost 2,000 years ago.

Resurrection Changes Everything

First, a resurrected Jesus confirms the truth of Christianity. Our faith is not founded on a fairy tale. It’s founded on fact. Jesus declared Himself to be God, to be equal with the Father, to forgive sins, to be the only way to God, and a host of other radical claims. His resurrection is confirmation of the truth of those claims. Thus, we can have total confidence Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

Second, a resurrected Jesus makes transformation possible. Sin no longer has to dominate our lives. There’s a new way to be human. Paul, an eyewitness to the risen Jesus, explains: “But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Romans 8:10–11). If the power of God’s Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, cannot that same power transform you and me? Absolutely.

—Brett Kunkle, used with permission from Stand to Reason


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