You are here

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: What the Bible Says about Jesus Rising from the Dead

Printer-friendly version

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: What the Bible Says about Jesus Rising from the Dead

The Bottom-Line Guide to Christian Doctrine, Part 3
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

The apostle Paul stated bluntly, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone fact of the Christian faith. It demonstrates that Jesus’ death on the cross was a sacrificial death “for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). It vindicates Jesus as the Messiah and reveals that he is the divine Son of God who came in humility in order to give us eternal life (John 20:28-31; Philippians 2:6-8). Nothing could be more essential to the gospel than the resurrection of Christ.

Alternative Theories

Not surprisingly, non-Christians have exerted much effort to debunk the Resurrection. What may be surprising are the many alternative explanations they have offered: (1) Jesus “swooned” on the cross and was later revived. (2) Jesus died and was buried, and the disciples stole the body and made up the Resurrection story. (3) Jesus had a long-lost identical twin who stole the body and passed himself off to Jesus’ disciples as Jesus back from the dead! (4) Jesus died and was buried, but the women went to the wrong tomb, which happened to be unoccupied. (5) Jesus died and his body was laid in one tomb temporarily; it was then moved to another tomb before the women showed up. (6) Jesus died, but his body wasn’t buried in a tomb but laid in an unmarked grave. (7) Someone else was crucified, either by mistake or by divine providence, so that Jesus wasn’t crucified at all. Islam, for example, teaches that Jesus ascended bodily to heaven without ever dying. (8) The disciples had hallucinations, subjective visionary experiences, or altered states of consciousness that were interpreted (maybe much later) as resurrection appearances. One scholar working in the 1960s suggested that Jesus’ disciples were using a hallucinatory drug! (9) According to Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, the death of Jesus was an illusion of mortal sense; because Jesus knew that only life and mind are real, he didn’t actually die. (10) Jesus’ body died but his spirit or soul attained higher consciousness or oneness with the divine, which Christians later misinterpreted as a physical resurrection. This explanation is popular among people of Eastern or New Age religious beliefs. (11) Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus died and his body was buried in the tomb; however, God dissolved the body into gases and recreated Jesus as an angelic spirit, who temporarily took bodily form whenever he needed to appear to the disciples. (12) Jesus never existed; somebody made up the whole story using pieces of pagan myths.

The sheer number of these rival hypotheses, and the implausible, inventive nature of many of them smack of desperation: anything but the Resurrection! None of these theories has gained serious traction in historical scholarship, because none of them adequately explains all of the known facts. For example, claiming that the women went to the wrong tomb does nothing to explain the reports that people saw Jesus alive; on the other hand, claiming that the appearances were hallucinations does nothing to explain what happened to the body. There are three basic elements of the Resurrection, each of which has evidence supporting it: (1) the death of Jesus on the cross, (2) his burial in a tomb and the subsequent discovery that the tomb was empty, and (3) the appearances of Jesus to his women and men followers. Let’s consider each of these points one at a time.

Jesus’ Death on the Cross

Oddly, the most popular non-Christian explanations for the Resurrection belief, by far, begin with the claim that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. Yet his death on the cross is the one fact in this whole matter that secular historians almost unanimously accept. John Dominic Crossan, the scholar who speculates that Jesus didn’t get a decent burial, admits, “Jesus’ death by execution under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be.” There are three reasons why scholars are so sure this part of the biblical story is factual. First, it isn’t the sort of thing anyone in the first century would make up. Paul indirectly makes this clear when he admits that the Greeks considered the message of a crucified Messiah “foolishness” and the Jews considered it scandalous, a stumbling block to belief in him (1 Corinthians 1:22-23). The idea was seemingly absurd: crucifixion was an extreme, horrific, shameful form of execution used by the Romans for traitors and runaway slaves (note Philippians 2:8). How could he be the Jewish messianic king or a divine figure of any sort? Second, all of the ancient sources tell the same story on this point. Christians in the first century did find it necessary to respond to some theories denying Jesus’ resurrection (such as that the disciples stole the body), but that Jesus hadn’t actually died on the cross wasn’t one of those theories. Third, there were too many people around who could witness the crucifixion of Jesus and would have known if someone else had been crucified or if Jesus had merely passed out on the cross. The Roman soldiers would not have let a body down from a cross if the body was not certifiably dead. Religious theories that God made everyone mistakenly think they saw Jesus on the cross (as some Muslims suggest) or that the material world itself isn’t real (Christian Science) in effect claim that the facts don’t matter. The same must be said for the skeptical claim that Jesus never existed.

The Empty Tomb

All four Gospels report that Jesus’ body was buried in a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish high council (the Sanhedrin), and that some women who knew Jesus personally went to that tomb and found it empty. This report has much to commend it to open-minded scholars. The Gospels’ descriptions of the tomb match quite nicely the many tombs in the Jerusalem area that archaeologists have excavated in the past century. Luke, for example, accurately describes the tomb as cut into the rock and requiring a person to stoop when entering (Luke 23:53; 24:12). This accuracy is difficult to explain if, as some skeptics claim, the empty tomb story was made up by Gentile Christians living far away (such as in Rome) forty years later. Also, Christians inventing an empty tomb story would not be likely to credit a member of the Sanhedrin, which had handed Jesus over to Pontius Pilate to be executed, with having provided the place for Jesus’ burial. Furthermore, the earliest explanations for the Resurrection story offered by opponents of Christianity conceded the empty tomb. The theories that the disciples stole the body (Matthew 28:11-15) and that someone simply moved the body (John 20:2, 13) obviously were non-Christian attempts to deny the Resurrection—but both theories concede that Jesus’ body had been buried in Joseph’s tomb and that the tomb was found empty.

The Appearances

The theories just mentioned suggesting that Jesus’ body was moved from its original burial place have several problems, but one stands out: they do nothing to explain the reports of people seeing Jesus alive after the tomb was found empty. It simply isn’t credible to claim that someone made this up or that Jesus’ followers had hallucinations or altered states of consciousness that they misunderstood as bodily appearances of Jesus. Too many people had these encounters with Jesus, and some of them were predisposed not to believe in Jesus, most notably Paul, who had persecuted Christians before Jesus appeared to him and made him an apostle (Acts 9:1-19; 1 Corinthians 15:5-11; Galatians 1:13-24). Belief that Jesus had risen from the dead quickly transformed the beliefs of Jesus’ followers. They came to view their Scriptures as all pointing forward to Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises. Skeptical scholars have difficulty denying that these experiences occurred even if they cannot bring themselves to accept the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Famous agnostic biblical scholar Bart Ehrman admits, “It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.”

The fundamental facts of the gospel are “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). The substantial historical evidence supporting these facts confirms that the biblical gospel rests not on myths, legends, or fraudulent claims, but on real events in history.


Recommended Resources

Boa, Kenneth D., and Robert M. Bowman Jr. 20 Compelling Evidences that God Exists: Discover Why Believing in God Makes So Much Sense. Colorado Springs: Cook, 2005. Chapters 13-17 present an easy-to-read, popular-level presentation of evidences for Jesus’ existence, death, and resurrection.

Bowman, Robert M. Jr. “How Do You Know It Was Jesus? Knowing the Truth about the Resurrection of Jesus.” YouTube, 2012. A PowerPoint presentation based on Luke’s account of Jesus’ resurrection.

Habermas, Gary R., and Michael R. Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004. Two of the leading scholars on the Resurrection teamed up to produce this readable, solid defense of its historicity.

Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010. Published doctoral dissertation giving an especially sophisticated defense of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.