Did the Resurrection Really Happen?
The defining issue of Christianity is the question, “Did Jesus Christ rise from the grave?” In essence, was the Resurrection of Jesus an actual bodily resurrection or merely a spiritual manifestation of some sort? Since the day Jesus rose from the dead, detractors have tried to deny the reality of His Resurrection because, as stated in Romans 1:4, a genuine resurrection proves His deity. The Christian needs to be fully persuaded that the Resurrection was a real event, and believers must be able to defend that truth because salvation itself depends upon the reality of the Lord physically rising from the dead. Indeed, according to Romans 10:9, belief in the Resurrection of Jesus is necessary for salvation.
First, we need to distinguish between Christ’s Resurrection and all other resurrections recorded in the Bible. When others were raised from the dead, the miracle was performed by a prophet or by Jesus through the power of God. Furthermore, those raised would again die someday, so it may be best to identify these miracles as resuscitations to distinguish them from Christ’s Resurrection. Jesus rose from the grave through His own power, according to John 10:18, and He rose never to die again.
The Resurrection reveals that God placed His “seal of approval” on Jesus and His work. Jesus claimed to be God (John 8:58, 10:30) and predicted that He would rise from the dead (John 2:19). If He were a false teacher, and God still raised Him from the dead, then God would have given credibility to a liar. Since God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18), He would not do this. The Resurrection shows that God was in complete agreement with Christ’s message.
The Resurrection not only proves that Jesus is truly God but also guarantees that He, as the last Adam, has successfully paid the price of sin for the descendants of the first Adam. Paul clearly reveals the essential connection between Christ’s Resurrection and our salvation in 1 Corinthians 15:17–18. “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” Thus, without a real physical resurrection, we have no hope. We are still dead in our trespasses. Further, Paul tells us that without Christ rising physically, we have no reason to live for anything other than ourselves: “If the dead do not rise, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!’” (1 Corinthians 15:32).
The relationship of the Resurrection to our salvation is further explained in Romans 4:25 where Paul tells us that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification. In other words, Christ’s sacrifice for our sins was sufficient, and the fact that He rose from the dead proves He has the power to save us from death and eternal damnation. The Son of God put on human flesh and blood so that He could shed that blood as a sacrifice for our sins. His death and Resurrection had to be literal physical events in order for Him to ensure that we, as physical beings, can be saved from the penalty for sin.
So is there a way we can really know that Christ rose from the dead? How can we assess the claim that someone was dead for three days and then was raised back to life? After all, as Christians we cannot claim that resurrections are common in our present everyday experience. How can we know that it happened in the past? As with all historical events, we must rely upon eyewitness testimony. With Creation, the only eyewitness was God, and He has provided His eyewitness account in Genesis. With Christ’s Resurrection, God made sure there were a number of eyewitnesses whose testimonies were recorded in the New Testament. Even before the testimonies of these people were written down, the news of the Resurrection spread like wildfire and turned the world upside down. As we prepare to give an answer for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), we need to carefully analyze the accounts of those who attested to the Resurrection. Those accounts include the testimonies of both Christians and non-Christians, recorded in the Bible and even in the writings of first century secular historians.
For the Christian the primary source of information about Christ and His life and death is the Bible itself. But is it appropriate to base our claim about the physical Resurrection of Jesus on a religious book? In reality the Bible is more than just a religious book. While it does contain poetry, allegory, and other literary forms, it is predominantly a book of history—the true history of the world.
The skeptic often objects to the use of the Bible as a source of information, claiming that the Bible is full of errors or contradictions. However, in these cases the burden of proof for these alleged errors falls on the skeptic. In the end these allegations can be dealt with by a proper interpretation and understanding of the texts in question.
The reliability of the Bible as a historical document has been demonstrated over and over. Historians and archaeologists continually affirm the accuracy of the Bible in matters of history. Further, the number of ancient manuscripts of the Bible far exceeds that of other ancient documents. Thus, if we can gain knowledge about ancient events from sources for which there are relatively few manuscripts, then why should we not use a source for which there is far greater documentation?
Beyond the Bible, we can find information from several other sources. The non-Christian writers Josephus, Lucian, and Tacitus, among others, wrote of Christ’s Crucifixion and the early days of Christianity. Much can be learned from investigating the works of these men.
Did Christ Really Die?
If we are to investigate the Resurrection of Jesus, it must first be established that He really died. After all, a resurrection can only be authentic if the person was actually dead.
In the case of Christ’s death, the Bible records that He was beaten and scourged terribly by the Roman soldiers even before He was nailed to the Cross. The nature of this type of beating was quite gruesome and involved being beaten and whipped. The whipping would have left Christ’s flesh mangled and torn, and there would have been considerable blood loss. Recall that He was too weak to carry His own Cross (Matthew 27:32).
He was then taken by the soldiers, and His hands and feet were nailed to the Cross. In agony, He struggled to take each breath. He willingly laid down His life as He submitted to the beatings and Crucifixion. So sure were the Roman soldiers that Jesus was dead that they did not feel it necessary to break His legs, as was customary in crucifixion. The final indignity was that His side was pierced by one of the soldiers.
Given all that had taken place, it is inconceivable that Christ survived the Crucifixion. The historical events of the Crucifixion have been studied closely by physicians, and the conclusion is always that Christ did, indeed, die from this process.
Further, the Roman historian Tacitus, writing in the late first century, records, “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite punishments on a class hated for their disgraceful acts, called Christians by the populace. Christ, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” Therefore, the testimony many decades later is that Christ did indeed die from this “extreme penalty.” Any believable report to the contrary would surely have surfaced by the time of Tacitus’s writings, but there was none.
Even with the evidence noted, some have suggested that Jesus did not die on the Cross but merely passed out or slipped into a coma-like state and was subsequently taken down from the Cross while alive. This is known as the “swoon theory.”
The swoon theory is implausible for several reasons. First, it is unlikely that anyone could have survived all that Christ endured. Second, the Roman soldiers were experts at executions. It is unreasonable to suggest they could not determine if a victim were dead. After all, their job was to kill the person, and they performed this duty on a consistent basis. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, someone who had endured such horrific punishment and survived would be incapacitated for an extended period of time. If Jesus had only passed out on the Cross, He would not have been physically capable of moving the stone that sealed the tomb. Further, when He appeared to His disciples, His physical appearance would have been that of a person severely injured and in great pain rather than the mighty death conqueror. Seeing Christ in that state would not have inspired the disciples to preach with the boldness that cost them their lives.
The Empty Tomb
The empty tomb is crucial to the claim that Christ rose physically. If the body of Jesus were still in the tomb, then the Resurrection is disproven from the start. The evidence from Scripture is that no one disputed the empty tomb. Some merely desired to suppress the knowledge of it.
The Gospels relate the finding of the empty tomb. Multiple witnesses, including Mary Magdalene, Mary, Salome, Peter, John, and others, saw Christ’s tomb empty. It was noted that the stone was rolled away and the burial garments of Christ were found inside the tomb. All four Gospels contain the account of this event. The body was missing.
When Mary Magdalene and the others went to the tomb to prepare the body of Jesus, they were told by the angel, “He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead” (Matthew 28:6–7). These women were told that Jesus was raised from the dead. This implies an actual physical resurrection.
No historical report relates that a body was still in the tomb. Simply put, if the body were there, Jesus did not rise. The authorities could have easily put this entire issue to rest by merely producing the dead body of Jesus. Moreover, there is no historical documentation, from either the Bible or other ancient documents, that even suggests that a body could be produced. Enemies of Christianity through the ages would relish the evidence of a body in the tomb. Such evidence would be the death knell of Christianity.
The best argument raised by those who opposed Christ was that His body was stolen by His disciples while the soldiers guarding the tomb were asleep. What folly is such a suggestion! First of all, immediately after the Crucifixion we find the disciples fearful and cowering. It is unrealistic to expect them to be able to evade or overpower the Roman guards at the tomb, break the seal, roll away the stone, and steal the corpse of Jesus. Further, what would be their motive for such a brazen act? The Bible describes that the disciples cowered in fear because they did not yet even grasp the fact that the Messiah must die and rise from the dead, even though Jesus had foretold His Resurrection (Luke 18:31–34). Thus, they would have no reason to even think of such a scheme. Why would they risk death to steal the body of their dead leader? How could they possibly benefit from such an endeavor? No, this could not be the reason the tomb was empty.
Perhaps the strongest refutation of the argument that the disciples merely stole the body is their bold witness after the Resurrection. These men were willing to die for their faith in their risen Lord. At no time did any of the disciples deny Christ even in the midst of their terrible trials and ordeals. If they had stolen the body, would they really be willing to die to conceal this act? Many people in history have willingly died for beliefs based on the testimony of others, but the disciples willingly suffered and most of them died because of something they had witnessed with their own eyes.
Lastly, one of the most compelling evidences for the empty tomb was the action of the chief priests and elders when told of the empty tomb. Instead of producing the body or embarking on an extensive search for the corpse, they merely told the soldiers to say that the disciples had stolen the body: “When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, ‘Tell them, “His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept”’” (Matthew 28:12–13). Notice that even the best argument of the day contradicts itself. How could the soldiers know who stole the body if they were asleep when the alleged theft occurred?
Eyewitness of the Disciples and the Women
The Bible records multiple appearances of Christ after He rose from the dead. The circumstances and descriptions of these appearances leave little doubt that what is being described are actual encounters with Christ in a physical, albeit glorified, body.
The first appearance was to Mary Magdalene as recorded in John 20. She initially did not recognize Him, thinking He was the gardener, but she soon realized He was the Savior. In Matthew 28, we find Christ’s appearance to the other women as they left to tell the disciples about the empty tomb. They held Him by the feet and worshipped Him. Obviously, as they were able to touch Him, they did not see an apparition but a physical body.
The notion that women were the first witnesses powerfully supports the idea that the Gospel writers and early church did not invent the Resurrection. At the time, the testimony of a Jewish woman was not allowed in court,1 so it makes no sense, if one is creating a story, to claim that women were the first eyewitnesses. It would be far more believable to claim that well-respected men like Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus were the first to discover the empty tomb. The fact that women were the first witnesses of the empty tomb and of the risen Lord testifies to the authenticity of the account.
Next, Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12–13, Luke 24:13–31). These two disciples walked and talked with Him along the way. In the evening, they sat down to eat. As they were handed the bread, they recognized Him: “Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:31).
He then came into the midst of 10 disciples as they were hiding for fear of the Jews. John 20:20 reveals, “When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”
Thomas was not present at this appearance. When told of the meeting, Thomas said, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
Eight days later, Christ again appeared to the disciples, this time with Thomas present. He told Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27). How could this be a reasonable request unless Jesus appeared to them in an actual physical body?
Then, Jesus appeared to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee where He cooked fish and they dined together. The Lord was later seen again by the disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16–17).
The Bible records that Christ also appeared to a group of more than 500 at one time and later to James: “After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:6–7).
Do these reports really stand as evidence for a bodily resurrection? As historical accounts they do seem credible and reliable, indicating the disciples encountered the physically risen Lord. The later behavior of these men shows that the only reasonable conclusion is that they had encountered the physically resurrected Christ.
After Jesus was crucified, these men were very afraid, hiding from the Jews and fearing for their own safety. What would cause them to suddenly become bold in their witness, preaching fearlessly, even at the risk of torture and death? History records that most of the disciples were ultimately martyred for their faith. The only plausible reason for this is that they truly had encountered the risen Messiah.
Those who question or deny the Resurrection cannot explain the change in these men. If Christ had merely passed out on the Cross, would an encounter with a horribly injured man be enough to embolden the disciples to become great men of God? If the tomb were empty because the disciples had stolen the body, would the disciples be willing to die for a lie? Would not at least one of them expose the lie to save his own skin? What would the religious leaders of the day have given to put down the followers of Christ? No, the only answer is that the disciples knew that Jesus had died and that they had seen Him alive again.
It could be argued that many people have been willing to die for a cause, so the change in the disciples in itself is not proof for the Resurrection. Further, the objection is raised that fanatics of all types have been willing to die for their particular beliefs. Of course, but the real issue is not whether the person willing to die believes their faith to be true, but whether they know it is true or false. The disciples were in a position to know whether the Resurrection actually occurred. If they had perpetrated a hoax, they would not have been willing to suffer and die for their fraud. Their sacrifice indicates that they actually believed the Resurrection was real.
Witness of Paul
While the testimony of the disciples is compelling, the conversion of the Apostle Paul would seem to be even more so. Saul of Tarsus, later called Paul, greatly persecuted the early church, persecuting and imprisoning the faithful. He said, “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women” (Acts 22:3–4). If there were an enemy of the early church, it was Saul of Tarsus.
So what would make this man, this “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5), become perhaps the boldest Christian who ever lived? The answer is simple. He had an encounter with the risen Christ. On the road to Damascus, Paul’s life changed forever. As he testified, “Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ So I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 22:6–8).
Here was a man with no sympathy for the early church that he persecuted and imprisoned. He had no love for Christ and certainly no reason to fabricate an account of meeting the resurrected Christ. On the road to Damascus, Paul believed that he had, indeed, met the Savior. As a result of that encounter, Paul was transformed from the greatest persecutor of the early church to a man who suffered greatly for the cause of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:22–29).
Witness of James
Paul stated that Jesus appeared to James (1 Corinthians 15:7). While there are a handful of men named James in the New Testament, Paul likely was referring to the half-brother of Jesus, the biological son of Mary and Joseph. The Gospels indicate that Jesus had several brothers, including “James, Joses, Simon, and Judas” (Matthew 13:55), and that they “did not believe in Him” during His ministry (John 7:5).
James later became a leader of the church at Jerusalem and at the so-called Jerusalem council (Acts 12:17, 15:13). According to tradition, he was martyred for his faith in Christ by being thrown off the temple and then beaten to death. What could so drastically change the life of an unbelieving person who actually grew up with Jesus? The only legitimate explanation is that he knew his brother had died, but then he saw Him alive again.
The Writings of Josephus
Josephus was a first century Jewish military leader-turned-historian when captured by the Romans. His works have provided much eyewitness information about the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Further, his writings have given us some insight into the early days of Christianity, including an extra-biblical account of Christ:
Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
Incidentally, we can consider Josephus a “hostile witness” since he was not a Christian.
A Real Physical Resurrection?
Skeptics have tried to discount the idea of the physical Resurrection of Jesus. In spite of the historical evidence supporting the event, they seek to explain away the fact that Christ rose bodily.
Some have argued that the passages in Scripture relating to the Resurrection are not to be taken literally, that is, as real history, but should be understood as fables. They argue that these accounts were never meant to be mistaken for historical narrative.
Others have suggested that the Resurrection accounts have been embellished over time. It is said that the disciples never meant to claim there was a real physical resurrection but that the early church kept adding to the original account.
Neither of these alternative ideas account for the changed lives of Paul, James, and the disciples. Only an encounter with the risen Christ provides an adequate explanation.
Some have tried to explain the post-Resurrection accounts by suggesting that the disciples had a hallucination. Again, this type of theory fails for multiple reasons. For one, hallucinations occur in individuals, not in groups of ten men, who would not have had exactly the same hallucination at the same time and on multiple occasions. Furthermore, the group of 500 certainly would not have had a “group vision.” Also, the empty tomb cannot be accounted for by the hallucination theory since so many people had viewed it.
Does Scripture Dispute a Bodily Resurrection?
Some have argued that the Bible itself denies the physical Resurrection of Christ. Several verses have been misused to support this claim. Not surprisingly, when more closely examined, these verses do not support the claims made by detractors.
The most commonly cited verse to support the contention that the Bible does not claim the bodily Resurrection is 1 Corinthians 15:44, which says, “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.” The issue in this passage is the nature of the “spiritual body” that is raised. Some claim the verse teaches that there will be, not a physical resurrection, but a spiritual one.
In this verse the term “spiritual body” does not refer to an immaterial, nonphysical body. Furthermore, the concept of a “natural body” does not just mean a physical body. This verse is meant to provide a contrast between the “natural” body, which is driven by fleshly and sinful desires, and the “spiritual” body, which is holy and led by spiritual desires. Although Christians have a new spiritual nature, we still must battle against the flesh.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit.” This verse is occasionally used to suggest that the Resurrection was only spiritual, but it does not state what the critics claim it does.
Nowhere does this verse deny a physical resurrection. It states that He died physically. So the critic must read into this passage what is not there. Moreover, Peter knew full well that Jesus rose physically. Following the Resurrection, he was among the group of disciples who watched Jesus eat and heard Him say, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39, NASB).
“Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”
Some have proposed that this verse proves that Christ was raised only in spirit form rather than physically. The claim is based on Christ’s appearance in a room with closed doors. Thus, His body, they say, must not have had a material nature.
However, the verse does not actually claim that Jesus passed through a door or a wall. It merely notes that He entered a room with a closed door. Even if the door were locked, simply by His will Christ could have overcome the lock and simply entered the room through the door. Furthermore, even in His physical body prior to His death and Resurrection, He was able to walk on water, so for Him to do the miraculous was no surprise.
In this instance, Jesus was so concerned to make sure the disciples knew He had physically risen that He ate in front of them (Luke 24:43). Later, meeting them in Galilee, He again ate in front of them. Ghostly apparitions do not eat.
Why Is the Resurrection Important?
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3–4).
Do we really need to understand that Christ’s Resurrection was physical and not merely spiritual? Is this much ado about nothing? Can’t we just love Jesus and let it go at that? Can we not just acknowledge that Christ took the punishment we deserved, regardless of whether He rose physically or spiritually? The answer is no.
Put simply, without the physical Resurrection of the Lord Jesus, there is no Christianity. As Paul said, if Christ is not risen, then our faith is futile (1 Corinthians 15:17). There is no salvation without the physical Resurrection of Christ, and one cannot be saved without believing it. Romans 10:9 states, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (KJV). As Christians, we are to be always prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), namely, the hope of eternal life. Only the Lord’s victory over death, proven by His Resurrection, can guarantee us that heavenly inheritance. We need to prepare ourselves to defend this doctrine as we witness to others about the risen Lord and Savior.