On Easter Sunday, more than 1 billion Christians across the world will celebrate a pivotal historical event from the first century A.D. Christians believe that after being crucified on Good Friday, Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, proving that He was the Son of God and giving hope to his disciples. But did this really happen?
Christian apologetics cannot prove that the Resurrection happened, but it can present evidence to make it plausible and counter the arguments against it.
There are three major objections to the Resurrection — that the Bible’s accounts are unreliable, that Jesus did not really die on the cross, and that there is a better explanation for early Christianity besides Jesus’ rising from the dead.
1. Are the gospels reliable?
Debates about the historicity of Jesus’ life often boil down to whether the New Testament is considered to have reliable historical documents or is mere Christian propaganda. Apologists like Lee Strobel note that the Greek New Testament has 5,843 preserved manuscripts, while the only other ancient text to come close is Homer’s Illiad, which has only 1,565 surviving copies. The oldest manuscripts are mere fragments, but they trace back to the second century A.D. There is also evidence of Jesus from non-Christian sources.
But perhaps the best evidence for the New Testament is internal.
The gospels mention small details — like the five porticoes of a pool in Jerusalem by the sheep gate (John 5:2) — that suggest a very early composition. John could not have written his gospel after 70 A.D., because the sheep gate, along with the rest of Jerusalem, was destroyed at that time. Furthermore, all of the gospels record Jesus prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem, but not a single one records this as history.
Furthermore, the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles make claims that effectively welcome correction. They mention eyewitnesses to the Resurrection and Jesus’ appearances afterward, and encourage readers to seek out these eyewitnesses to confirm their testimony.
The gospels are chock full of references to specific historical people — rulers like Quirinius the governor of Syria, King Herod the Great, and Pontius Pilate. They do not read like modern history texts, but they were written to record historical events — that is what their authors intended them to do.
2. Did Jesus die on the cross?
In his book No God But One: Allah or Jesus? A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam & Christianity, former Muslim Nabeel Qureshi investigated the historical claims for Islam and Christianity. He found the arguments against Jesus’ physical death wanting.
The Quran explicitly denies the death of Jesus (Surah 4.157), with some saying Jesus seemed to die on the cross but really survived, with others argue that another person, likely Simon of Cyrene, was made to appear like Jesus and died in his place.
But atheist and agnostic scholars conclude that Jesus did die on the cross, and Qureshi quoted three of them in his book. John Dominic Crossan, in particular, wrote, “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.” Jesus’ death by crucifixion is reported by Christians (in the New Testament), a Roman historian (Tacitus) and a Jewish historian (Josephus).
Furthermore — and this is a key argument for the historical reliability of the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection — the stigma of crucifixion was not something anyone trying to craft a religion from scratch would choose to focus on. The Romans perfected the art of crucifixion to take hours (sometimes days), to be exceedingly painful, to certainly kill the victim, and to be fundamentally degrading. Indeed, Roman graffiti mocking a Christian known as Alexamenos shows him worshipping a crucified man with the head of a donkey.
“No one has ever survived a full Roman crucifixion, and had Jesus done so, that would have been a much more appealing message for the early church to proclaim than was the stumbling block of a crucified savior,” Qureshi wrote. For a vivid and disturbing (but biblically accurate) illustration, watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2003).
3. Did Jesus rise from the dead?
Finally, Qureshi argued that Jesus’ resurrection is the best explanation of three important historical facts: Jesus died by crucifixion, Jesus’ followers truly believed the risen Jesus had appeared to them, and people who were not followers of Jesus believed the risen Jesus had appeared to them.
The crucifixion is well-documented, and the New Testament includes stories of disciples believing that Jesus appeared to them and encouraging an investigator to ask surviving witnesses. The story of Jesus’ brother James corroborates that people who did not follow Christ at the time of his crucifixion later believed his resurrection, sincerely enough to die for their beliefs.
The story of the Apostle Paul, who went from killing Christians to leading them, and who gave up a position of great authority among Jewish leaders — and ultimately, even his life — to lead a small persecuted movement, also provides strong evidence for Paul’s sincere belief in the Resurrection.
Furthermore, throughout the gospels, the disciples come across as foolish and weak. Jesus rebukes James and John for requesting to sit on his right and left hand in heaven, Peter infamously denies Christ three times, and when Jesus is captured on Maundy Thursday, his disciples scatter. From these descriptions, it seems very unlikely these very same disciples would have given their lives, most of them in very painful ways, for a savior they believed to be dead and not resurrected.
Furthermore, the gospel accounts of the Resurrection do contain small inconsistencies — much like eyewitness reports in a police investigation, some argue. As PJ Media’s own Jeff Sanders pointed out, the Resurrection narratives all contain the same elements: “the same angelic visitation, empty tomb, and grave clothes.” He noted that each story presents “the same devout women, unbelieving (at first) apostles, and traumatized and confused disciples. And we see the same resurrected and glorified Jesus giving essentially the same commissions to His strengthened followers.”
In each story, the account of the Resurrection is told by women — another would-be embarrassing fact of the story, since at the time, women were not considered reliable enough to give testimony in court. Over and over again, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection features story elements that a religious innovator would have left out.
Many other arguments aim to deny the resurrection, but all fail. Bereavement hallucinations do indeed occur, but never for five hundred people at one time. If the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb, they would not have submitted to death for their belief in him. The theory that best fits the facts, as Qureshi argues, is the Resurrection itself.
It is impossible to prove the Resurrection, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest it it occurred, so long as miracles are not ruled out by definition.