The claim of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian message as the cornerstone of all claims to divinity and salvific efficacy, and although it has been hotly contested by those with naturalist presuppositions, the historical data supports the Christian claim of the resurrection.
The claim of Jesus’s bodily resurrection is central to the gospel message. Without his bodily resurrection, Jesus’s claims to divinity would be empty, and the gospel’s claim to be the power of God for salvation would be false. Although many with naturalistic presuppositions have questioned the legitimacy of the claim of resurrection, six facts support the credibility of the historical claim. First, death by crucifixion was not something that the followers of Jesus were likely to invent. Second, burial account fits with all historical evidence that we have. Third, the claim of the empty tomb was easily verifiable, but there are no contradictory accounts. Fourth, the apostles claim to have met the resurrected Jesus face-to-face. Fifth, these apostles were willing to suffer and die for these claims. Sixth, those who were very unlikely to be converted to this belief were, nonetheless, converted by means of personal experiences of the resurrected Christ.
Jesus’s resurrection is “of first importance” for the Gospel message (1 Cor. 15:1–3). Through this event, Christians are justified before God (Rom. 4:25) and are able to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4; 2 Cor. 5:15; Eph. 2:1–10; Col. 3:1). Additionally, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead will also raise believers (Rom. 6:5, 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14; Phil. 3:20–21; 1 Thess. 4:13–14). But without the resurrection, we are still in our sins, have lied about God, have a worthless faith, and are most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:12–19, 32–34).
Given its centrality to the Christian message, it should not come as a surprise that Jesus’s resurrection is also found throughout the sermons in Acts (2–5, 10, 13, 17). In these sermons, the apostles would point out that they were witnesses to the resurrected Jesus (2:32, 3:15). Paul refers to the resurrection as the proof that a day has been fixed when man will be judged (17:31, cf. 10:42) and those who believe and follow after Jesus receive forgiveness of sins (10:43, 13:38).
We can see, then, why Jesus’s resurrection is so vital for believers and that several important conclusions follow from it. The resurrection provides immense hope, comfort, peace, and joy. Since all this is of such importance, it is necessary for believers to keep in mind the evidences for their belief in the resurrection so that they may be prepared to give a reason for the hope that they have when asked (1 Pet. 3:15). Situations where we may be asked to give such an account could arise in the context of evangelizing (Acts 17:18–20, 32–34) or in the midst of personal pain or suffering (1Thess. 4:13–14; 1 Pet. 1:3–9).
Below we will present six facts that not only support Jesus’ resurrection but also argue strongly against naturalistic theories. Additionally, each of these six facts are supported by multiple historical criteria.
1. Jesus’s Death by Crucifixion
This is attested to by several sources throughout the NT as well as non-Christian sources (Josephus, Tacitus, et al.) and Christian sources outside of the NT (Clement of Rome, Ignatius, et al). When there are multiple independent sources that attest to an event, historians believe that this increases the likelihood that the event has occurred. Thus, these multiple independent sources that report Jesus’s death by crucifixion adds to its greater probability.
The event is embarrassing and not something that the earliest disciples would likely have invented. For the Jews, one who was crucified was considered be under a curse (Deut. 21:22–23; Gal. 3:13). The Romans too would have seen the cross as a “folly” since it was considered a punishment reserved for slaves (1 Cor. 2:3).
It is to be expected that those who wished Jesus executed would have made sure it was completed. Indeed, a final death-blow was administered to ensure Jesus was actually dead (John 19:33–34).
There are multiple sources reporting Jesus’s burial. The earliest tradition comes from a creed that Paul recounts in 1 Corinthians 15:4, which many scholars have dated to the early 30s AD. In addition to Paul, it is reported in each of the Gospels as well as in Acts.
Importantly, the only positive evidence we have regarding Jesus’ burial is unanimous that Jesus was, in fact, buried. No competing burial accounts exist. Additionally, archeology provides evidence that crucified victims received a proper burial. In 1968, a crucifixion victim named Yehohanan was found in an ossuary (housed the bones of the deceased) that has been dated to the 30s AD, the exact same decade Jesus was crucified and buried.
3. Empty Tomb
The empty tomb, like the burial, is reported in all four Gospels. It is assumed in the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff. as well as the sermon in Acts 2:22–32 (cf. Luke 24:1–12). The opponents of Jesus inadvertently acknowledge that the tomb was empty when they claim that the disciples stole Jesus’s body (Matt. 28:11–15). This claim seeks to explain why the tomb was empty rather than denying that it was actually empty.
The early message of the resurrection was proclaimed in Jerusalem, thus making the earliest apostles’s claim easily verifiable since the tomb was in that very city. Since it was proclaimed in Jerusalem, anyone who was interested could have gone and investigated the tomb themselves.
4. Apostles had Experiences they Believed to be of the Risen Jesus
The earliest list of appearances is found in 1 Corinthians 15:5–8. Appearances are listed to both individuals (Peter, James, and Paul) as well as groups (the twelve, five hundred, all the apostles). The creed itself is believed by many to have been “received” by Paul (15:1, 3) during his trip to Jerusalem just three years after his conversion (Gal. 1:18–19). Interestingly, the two people he met during this trip were Peter and James, the Lord’s brother (the same two individuals mentioned in the creed). Yet, if they gave it to Paul at this meeting, then they must have had it prior. Thus, many scholars date this creed to the early 30s AD, shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion (around 30 AD).
Although Paul’s list is generally regarded as the earliest, the sermons in Acts that report the Peter and others as being witnesses is also early (Acts 2:32, 3:15). Of course, appearances are also reported in Matthew, Luke, and John (as well as non-canonical material). Importantly, in the early creed, there are three group appearances mentioned. Group appearances are also reported in other sources (Matt. 28:16–20; Luke 24:13–49; John 20:19–24; Acts 2:32). The group appearances are important because they argue very strongly against the possibility of hallucinations.
5. Willing to Suffer
While many have died for something they believed to be true (including Christians today), the earliest Christians were willing to suffer and die for what they knew to be true. Thus, the willingness of the earliest Christians to suffer and die for their beliefs highlights their sincerity in a way unique to them since they knew what they were willing to suffer for was either true or false (in contrast to Christian martyrs today who may base their beliefs off the claims of the apostles).
Paul provides firsthand accounts of his willingness to suffering. Most notably he provides a list of the hardships he had personally endured in 2 Corinthians 11:23–29, which includes being flogged five times. Additionally, Christian (Clement of Rome) and non-Christian sources (Josephus) provide early reports regarding the deaths of Peter, Paul, and James the brother of Jesus.
6. Conversion of Non-Believers (Paul and James)
In addition to the accounts in Act 9, 22, and 26, Paul provides his own account of his conversion from being a persecutor of the church to a follower of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:8–10; Gal. 1:12–16; Phil. 3:6–7; 1Tim. 1:12–17). James, the brother of the Lord, was considered a skeptic during Jesus ministry (Mark 3:21; 6:2–4, 6; John 7:5). He, however, then became the leader of the early church (Acts 15:13ff.) and was a “pillar” of the church that Paul met with while on his trips to Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18–19; 2:9). Paul also specifically identifies James as having seen the risen Lord (1 Cor. 15:7; Acts 1:14).
These six facts are well-attested historically, and naturalistic theories have been unable to account for them. For example, take the claim noted above that the disciples stole the body. First, they were willing to suffer and die for this belief. Liars promote lies in order to make their lives more comfortable but not to encounter greater suffering. Second, if the disciples stole the body it would not explain the conversion of Paul or James. Prior to his conversion, Paul might have initially thought the disciples did steal the body! Yet, for Paul it was the encounter with Jesus that converted him.
The hallucination theory is another example of how naturalistic theories are challenged by these facts. As noted above, there are multiple group appearances which strongly argue against the hallucination theory. Additionally, Paul would not have been likely to hallucinate as a persecutor of the church. Lastly, the tomb would not have been empty if the disciples had hallucinated. The disciple’s friends and family or the authorities themselves would have pointed out that the body was still in the tomb! Yet this did not happen. Thus, we see again how these few facts can argue against naturalistic theories.
We have only been able to present a concise overview of the evidences for each of these six facts surrounding Jesus’s resurrection. Since the NT is a collection of writings, each author provides his own specific details. The NT highlights the centrality of the resurrection for Christianity. Importantly, the evidences can assist believers in sharing the Gospel by keeping the central focus on Jesus and the resurrection. Additionally, the resurrection is the grounding for the transformation of believers to put to death the deeds of the flesh and walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4). Believers can also remind themselves during times of doubt or suffering of the fact of the resurrection and what follows from it (1 Pet. 3:9). The resurrection of Jesus, then, is an event which is central to Christian teachings and practice that is also well evidenced.
Resources from Gary Habermas:
- Benjamin C. F. Shaw and Gary Habermas, “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ as Christianity’s Centerpiece”
- Gary Habermas, com (several free resources)
- Gary Habermas, Future Jesus, Risen Hope
- Gary Habermas, Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ
- Gary Habermas, “Job and Me” in Forever Loved: A Personal Account of Grief and Resurrection
- Gary Habermas, The Thomas Factor: Using Your Doubts to Draw Closer to God
- Gary Habermas, The Uniqueness of Jesus Christ Among the Major World Religions
- Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, The Case for the Resurrection
- Benjamin C. F. Shaw, “Jesus’ Resurrection: A Historical Inquiry”
- Mike Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Historiographical Approach
- N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God
- William Lane Craig, The Son Rises
- William Lane Craig, Video: Facts Surrounding the Resurrection
- William Lane Craig, Video: Explanation of the Facts
Ministry and Application Resources:
- Anthony C. Thornhill, “The Resurrection of Jesus and Spiritual (Trans)Formation
- Eugene Peterson, Living the Resurrection”
- N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
- N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God
- Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson, The Cross is not Enough: Living as Witnesses to the Resurrection