Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? Three Historical Facts (+ Four Explanations That Don’t Work)

Why did Jesus die?

  • Because he was making outrageous claims about his identity.

Why would anyone take these claims seriously?

  • Because this followers claim that he rose from the dead?
  • If he did, that gives considerable weight to his claim.
  • If he didn’t, his claims can be safely dismissed as just another interesting but tragic figure of history.

So: Did Jesus rise from the dead?

To answer that question, we need to ask two more questions:

  • What are the facts that require explanation?
  • Which explanation best accounts for these facts?

These two videos from William Lane Craig’s ministry, Reasonable Faith, provide an overview of answers to each one.

Historical Fact #1: The tomb of Jesus of Nazareth was discovered empty.

This discovery is reported in

  • six independent sources
    • Luke 24:1–12
    • John 20:1–8
    • 1 Cor. 15:3–5
    • Mark 16:1–8
    • Matt. 28:1–10
    • Acts 2:29–32
  • some of these are among the earliest materials to be found in the New Testament.

This is important because

  • when an event is recorded by two or more unconnected sources, historians’ confidence that the event actually happened increases;
  • the earlier these sources are dated, the higher their confidence.

Women were said to have discovered the tomb.

  • This is likely historical, because in that culture, a woman’s testimony was considered next to worthless.
  • A later legend or fabrication would have had men making this discovery.

Jewish authorities’ response to the empty tomb:

  • They said that Jesus’ followers had stolen his body,
  • thereby admitting that Jesus’s tomb was in fact empty!

Jacob Kremer: “Most scholars, by far, hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb.”

Historical Fact #2: Many people experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death.

In one of the earliest letters in the New Testament, Paul provides a list of witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection appearances.

He appeared to Peter, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than 500 brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Finally, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor. 15:5–8)

Furthermore, various resurrection appearances of Jesus are independently confirmed by the Gospel accounts.

On the basis of Paul’s testimony alone, virtually all historical scholars agree that various individuals and groups experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death.

Gerd Lüdemann: “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”

Historical Fact #3: The followers of Jesus believed in the resurrection.

After Jesus’ crucifixion, his followers were

  • devastated,
  • demoralized, and
  • hiding in fear for their lives.

This is not what they as Jews were expecting.


  • had no concept of a messiah who would be executed by his enemies,
  • had no concept of a messiah who would come back to life.
  • believed only in a resurrection that was a universal event on judgement day after the end of the world, not an individual event within history.
  • believed that crucifixion as a criminal meant that someone was literally under God’s curse.

But . . .

  • They became so completely convinced of Jesus’s resurrection that when threatened with death, not one of them recanted.
  • Even the Pharisee, Paul, who persecuted Christians, suddenly became a Christian himself, as did Jesus’ skeptical younger brother James.

Luke Timothy Johnson: “Some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was.”

N. T. Wright: “That is why as an historian I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.”

Naturalism is the belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes.

The four most popular naturalistic explanations are as follows:

Naturalistic Explanation #1: The disciples faked the resurrection.

  • The disciples stole Jesus’s body from the tomb.
  • The disciples then lied about seeing Jesus alive, thereby perpetrating the greatest hoax of all time.


  • It is hopelessly anachronistic; it looks at the disciples’ situation through the rearview mirror of Christian history instead of from the standpoint of a first century Jew. (Remember, resurrection was a universal event at the end of the world with no connection to the Messiah.)
  • It fails to address the disciples’ obvious sincerity.
    • People don’t willingly die for something they know is not true.
    • These people sincerely believed the message they proclaimed and were willing to die for.

No scholar defends the conspiracy theory today.

Naturalistic Explanation #2: Jesus didn’t really die.

  • Jesus didn’t really die;
  • He revived in the tomb somehow, escaped, and managed to convince his disciples he was risen from the dead.


  • It’s medically impossible.
    • The Roman executioners were professionals.
    • They knew what they were doing and made sure their victims were dead before taken down.
    • Jesus was tortured so extensively that even if he was taken down alive, he would have died in the sealed tomb.
  • This theory is wildly implausible.
    • Seeing a half-dead man who crawled out of the tomb desperately in need of bandaging and medical attention would hardly have convinced the disciples that he was gloriously risen from the dead.

No New Testament historians defend this theory today.

Naturalistic Explanation #3: The body of Jesus was displaced from the first tomb and the disciples found it empty.

  • Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’s body in his tomb temporarily because it was convenient;
  • Later he moved the corpse to a criminal’s common graveyard;
  • The disciples visited the first tomb and found it empty;
  • They concluded that Jesus must have risen from the dead.


  • Jewish laws prohibited moving a corpse after it was interred except to the family tomb
  • The criminals’ graveyard was located close to the place of execution so that burial there would not have been a problem.
  • Once the disciples began to proclaim Jesus’s resurrection, Joseph would have corrected their mistake.

No current scholars endorse this theory.

Naturalistic Explanation #4: The disciples didn’t really see Jesus but were all hallucinating.

  • They just imagined that he appeared before them.


  • Jesus appeared
    • not just one time, but many times;
    • not just in one place, but in different places;
    • not just to one person, but to different persons;
    • not just to individuals, but to groups of people;
    • and not just to believers, but to unbelievers as well.
  • There is nothing in the psychological case books on hallucinations comparable to these resurrection appearances.
  • Hallucinations of Jesus would have led the disciples to believe at most that Jesus had been transported to heaven, not risen from the dead, in contradiction to their Jewish beliefs.
  • In the ancient world, visions of the deceased were not evidence that the person was alive, but evidence that he was dead and had moved on to the afterworld.
  • This theory doesn’t even attempt to explain the empty tomb.

The four most popular naturalistic theories fail to explain the historical facts.

They are universally rejected by contemporary scholarship.

The other possibility is the explanation given by the original eyewitnesses:

God raised Jesus from the dead.

Unlike the other theories, this makes perfect sense of

  • the empty tomb,
  • the appearances of Jesus alive, and
  • group of dejected followers suddenly transformed by a radical new belief in a risen messiah and willing to die for that belief.

But is this explanation plausible?

  • If it’s even possible that God exists, then miracles are possible.
  • Surely it’s possible that God exists.
  • And if miracles are possible, then this explanation of the resurrection cannot be ruled out

So how do you explain the resurrection?