Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the single most important tenet of the Christian beliefs. Regarding it, the apostle Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 15:12-19),
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Last week I discussed some of the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus fulfilled. Included in those prophecies was the idea that the Messiah would be killed and then would come back from the dead. Consider Isaiah 52 and 53.
- his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind— so shall he sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths because of him, for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand. (Isaiah 52:14-15)
- He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3-5)
- By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:8-12)
These passages indicate that the Messiah will die a horrific death, serving as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of people, and yet would live again to see the results of his sacrifice. Regarding Jesus’ resurrection, there are a minimum of five historical facts which must be accounted for in any explanation of what happened.
Fact #1 – Jesus died
Some have suggested that perhaps Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross but rather passed out and then revived in the tomb. This argument has been refuted in many places and I suggest you research it yourself. The brutality of crucifixion, especially following a Roman flogging, leaves no doubt of his death. He lost copious amounts of blood and his lungs were pierced by a spear after filling with fluid and essentially asphyxiating him. Jesus definitely died on the cross, so if he was indeed seen alive afterward, he had to have come back to life.
Fact #2 – Eyewitness accounts
Jesus was seen by over 500 individuals over a period of the next 40 days after his resurrection on the Sunday morning following his Friday afternoon death (1 Corinthians 15:5-7). Paul points out in this passage that many of those eyewitnesses were still alive and could be consulted as witnesses to this event. He was by Paul himself about 2 years later (Acts 9), and by John again about 60 years later (Revelation 1). The eyewitness accounts bear the mark of truthfulness as much as any modern eyewitness accounts can.
Fact #3 – The conversion and belief of a dire enemy
Paul, mentioned above, was a Jew and persecutor of the early Christians. He relentlessly pursued them and drug them off to jail for trial or execution. It was on one of these trips that Jesus appeared to Paul and confronted him about the persecution and ultimately called Paul to become a witness for Jesus to the Gentiles. The details of Paul’s conversion can be found in Acts 9, 22, and 26. God told Paul from the outset that he would suffer much by taking the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul did indeed suffer much (2 Corinthians 11:21-33) and ultimately died as a martyr. Yet he ended up writing a great deal of the New Testament and being arguably the most effective missionary ever to live. Something convinced this enemy of Christ that he was risen from dead.
Fact #4 – The conversion and belief of a skeptical relative
Another unlikely conversion and champion of Christ’s resurrection was Jesus’ half-brother, James. Of course, Jesus was the son of Mary and was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Her betrothed husband, Joseph, served as Jesus’ earthly father and had children with Mary. James was the next one born after Jesus. Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 tell us of the rest of Jesus’ siblings. John 7:3-5 indicates that, at least initially, his brothers did not believe in him. Also James apparently would have nothing to do with Jesus at the time of his crucifixion because Jesus asked John (from the cross) to take care of his mother, the job that should have rightfully fallen to James. However, after his resurrection, we see that James quickly became the principal leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:12-21) and author of a New Testament book. Yet in this book he identifies himself not as the brother of Jesus, but as a servant of him (James 1:1).
Fact #5 – The empty tomb
Something had to have happened to Jesus’ body. No one knew where it was, or it could have been produced as evidence to disqualify claims of Jesus’ resurrection. There was ample desire and incentive for Jesus’ enemies to do so. There have been suggestions by skeptics of various explanations for the missing body, and I’ll leave it to you to investigate those yourself. Here are some of the proposals:
- The women who reported Jesus missing went to the wrong tomb. Others would have simply pointed out their mistake!
- The disciples stole and hid the body. This is the story the guards were apparently bribed to spread (Matthew 28:11-15). However, if the disciples did this, it is highly unlikely that they would have been able to perpetuate the lie and be willing to die as martyrs for it!
Additionally, one needs to consider the rapid growth of the early church. As we read in Acts 1-12, the early church grew very rapidly due to the testimony of Jesus’ apostles, and this growth was right in the region where Jesus was crucified and buried. There would have been plenty of opportunity to expose the false claims of Jesus’ resurrection if that were possible.