LCG Article

Did Jesus Christ Rise from the Dead?

The role of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is critical, and the truth of that resurrection gives power and hope to true Christians.

Wallace G. Smith

Unlike many of the religious faiths and philosophies of the world, true Christianity is rooted in fact and history. We proclaim that certain facts of our faith took place in real history, seen and heard by real people.

Among these facts, the Bible bears witness to the centrality of one key event: Three days and three nights after He was killed by crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected from the dead. Sadly, some “Christians” in the world actually deny the reality of Christ’s resurrection. They write it off as a later legend, myth, or metaphor, hoping to strip miracles and supernatural elements from their faith to make it more credible and less “embarrassing.” God’s word, however, says quite the opposite. If the resurrection of Jesus Christ did not happen three days and three nights after His death, our faith is meaningless.

The Resurrection’s Role Is Critical

Consider the Apostle Paul’s clear statement in 1 Corinthians 15:14–19:

[If] Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. 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. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.

Indeed, Jesus staked the credibility of His Messiahship on the fact that He would rise from the grave, alive once more, after three days and three nights in the tomb (Matthew 12:39–40). If Jesus Christ did not rise from death to life again, then there is no forgiveness of sins, there is no future resurrection of the dead, there is no coming Kingdom of God, and there is no Son of God living His life in us, helping us to overcome day by day, building His own character within us, and bringing us into increasingly intimate union with our Creator.

Yet if He did rise from the grave—just as He said He would—everything changes. He is the Son of God, His word is true, His kingdom is coming, and He does live within Christians through His Spirit, transforming them throughout their lives to fulfill God’s purpose for them.

Are there reasons to believe such a claim? Does it make sense to believe that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, actually rose again to life three full days after He died?

Yes, there are. And yes, it does.

In a world of growing skepticism, in which the historic claims of Christianity are completely discounted and we are ridiculed for believing in ancient “fairy tales,” it is increasingly vital to prove the truth of our beliefs for ourselves. And this is certainly true for the one sign Jesus gave for His Messiahship (Matthew 12:38–40), without which Paul says our faith is meaningless: His resurrection from the dead.

Let’s spend some time examining the evidence behind this remarkable claim.

There Are Facts to Be Explained

Because the Bible says that the resurrection is a matter of history, not myth or legend, the claims of the story can be examined in the same way that the claims of any historical account are examined. And, in the case of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there are a number of elements that someone impartially examining the evidence must address.

Whether or not someone believes in the claims of Christianity, these are claims about historical events, to be either refuted or accepted and explained. Can they be refuted? Let’s look at the evidence for each of these two facts.

Fact: The Tomb Was Found Empty

That Jesus lived, had a ministry in first-century Judea, and was killed by crucifixion are facts of history beyond any reasonable dispute. The fad of denying that Jesus ever existed seems to be enjoying a small renaissance among those very desperate to remove any traces of Christianity from the world, but the consensus of scholarship—including secular scholarship—accepts these facts. They are mentioned by numerous ancient scholars, such as first-century historians Flavius Josephus, Tacitus, Lucius, Pliny the Elder, and Celsus. Even His miracles are mentioned by many ancient secular writers, though they often dismiss them as tricks or “sorceries”—much the same as Jesus’ Jewish detractors did in His day (Matthew 12:24). Claiming He did not exist is a tactic of only the most desperate deniers, reflective of the same spirit as those who deny the Holocaust.

The life and death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most thoroughly attested facts of ancient history. But so, too, is His empty tomb.

The Bible says that the tomb of Jesus was first found empty by female followers of Jesus and later by others, such as Peter and John. If you have proven the Bible to be trustworthy in its every word, then you accept this account completely. But can a case be made for those unfamiliar with the Bible? Would it also be reasonable for a secular, non-Christian to believe that Jesus’ tomb was found empty? Can the Bible’s claim be supported?

Yes, it can. The account of the empty tomb has many hallmarks of historical authenticity, both within and outside of the Bible. For instance, the Bible states in all four historical accounts of Jesus’ ministry that the first people to discover the empty tomb were women (Matthew 28:1–8; Luke 24:1–3; Mark 16:1–8; John 20:1–2). Why is this significant?

It matters to historians because women were not trusted as credible witnesses in first-century Judea. Historians consider the “embarrassment principle” when evaluating historical claims: If people are fabricating a story for their own benefit, they generally do not include elements that embarrass or hurt their cause. In the case of the empty tomb, given the carnal customs and beliefs of the first-century culture in which Christianity began, it would have been embarrassing for the discovery of the empty tomb—a keystone of the Apostles’ claims to the legitimacy of their message (e.g., Acts 2:32; 10:39–41; 17:31)—if it were first made by women. Yet the writers of the New Testament reported this fact clearly and plainly.

If the resurrection of Jesus and the empty tomb were a fiction that ancient Christians were “making up” to prop up their religion, they would not have chosen women as the first witnesses. The account of the tomb’s discovery passes the historian’s “embarrassment principle” test of authenticity.

Also consider the evidence provided by the earliest attacks on Christianity. Had the tomb of Jesus not been empty, then all the enemies of the growing Church had to do was produce the body. When the Apostles claimed that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, the Jewish leaders seeking to silence the troublesome movement had merely to point to the tomb and demonstrate that the body of the man named Jesus was still present in the tomb and still very dead! Yet there is no historical record of any such claim ever being made by the Jews or anyone else. Quite the opposite—history records that the enemies of the Church tried to explain why the tomb was empty. Again, even the enemies of the Apostles acknowledged the empty tomb and the absence of a body.

We see evidence of this in the gospels, as well. Matthew 28 relates the tale of the Jewish leadership bribing the guards at Jesus’ tomb and instructing them to say, “Tell them, ‘His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept’” (v. 13). Matthew then closes by explaining to his readers that “this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day” (v. 15). This is evidence within the Bible itself that the Jewish enemies of the early Church were not arguing that the tomb was not empty—rather, they were trying to explain the empty tomb away.

Even many skeptical scholars recognize that the evidence for the fact of the empty tomb is powerful. Jesus died and was buried, but three days and three nights later, His tomb was empty.

Fact: Many Disciples Claimed to Have Seen Him Alive Again

Some secular historical sources, such as Josephus, tell us that the disciples of Jesus reported that they had seen Him alive again after His death by crucifixion.

Concerning biblical evidence—even if we only treat it as a mere historical source, and not the fully inspired and inerrant word of God that we know it to be—the account is the same: Without doubt, many disciples of Jesus Christ claimed to see Him and interact with Him, alive again after His death. For just one example, let’s consider 1 Corinthians 15.

Part of why Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians is a powerful one to use with skeptics is because of its broad acceptance as “authentic,” even by scholars who are opposed to Christianity. While those in the Church of God believe that Paul wrote the letters attributed to him in the New Testament, worldly scholars often debate and argue endlessly about this fact. Yet when it comes to the book of 1 Corinthians, there is broad consensus—even among skeptical scholars—that not only did the Apostle Paul write it, but also that it was written only 20 years or so after the death of Jesus Christ. So, even for academic and secular purposes, 1 Corinthians represents a powerful primary source concerning the beliefs of the first-century Church.

For this reason, 1 Corinthians 15:3–8 provides powerful evidence that a startling number of the first Christians did, indeed, claim to have seen Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead with their own eyes:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 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. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.

There is much to highlight here. Notice that this is not a statement about some sort of ghostly “vision.” Paul is claiming that a whole host of people saw the previously dead Jesus of Nazareth alive again, just as He had predicted He would be (John 2:19; Mark 8:31).

But he also provided details so that his readers could validate his claims for themselves. He named individuals who could serve as witnesses, such as Peter (whom Paul called by his Aramaic name, “Cephas”) and James, Jesus’ brother. Listing James is significant, as the gospel of John records that earlier James did not believe in his brother’s Messiahship (John 7:3–5).

Perhaps even more impressively, Paul said that the resurrected Jesus Christ was seen by “over five hundred brethren at once.” And, further still, he explained that while some of those 500 had died in the last 20 years, most of them were still alive. That is significant—it means that their testimony could be checked at will by his readers. Had Paul been making up his tale—lying about the claims of those who said they had seen Jesus alive again—his testimony could have been easily invalidated. Only a fool would lie about several hundred people who were still alive and able to contradict his story.

Rather than discredit him, these facts gave Paul’s message power and authenticity, allowing him to proclaim before kings such as Agrippa that these things were true and verifiable by everyone, “since this thing was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).

Paul’s comment here has the hallmarks of history, and, again, even skeptics who do not personally believe in the resurrection do believe that the first generation of disciples believed they had seen and interacted with the resurrected Jesus. As skeptical scholar Gerd Lüdemann admits in his book What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection, “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” (emphasis mine). Again—a fact of history.

The Crucial Question: How Do We Explain the Facts?

If these two items—the empty tomb of Jesus and His disciples’ sightings of Him alive again after His death—are facts of history, then they cannot be avoided and must be explained. What could that explanation be?

Many secular, “miracle-free” explanations have been provided by unbelieving scholars to explain these facts. Let’s review some of them.

The “Swoon” Theory: This is the idea that Jesus didn’t really die during His crucifixion, but, rather, faked His death—or, perhaps, was only thought to be dead and revived once He was placed in the tomb. Then, the theory contends that He only claimed to be resurrected later.

This is, of course, ridiculous. The Romans knew how to execute and were brutally thorough. They made a living at dealing death. The idea that Jesus could somehow “play dead” and fool centurions whose own lives depended on their success at killing the crucified is highly implausible. Even worse, the suggestion that He somehow survived His torturous beating and agonizing crucifixion in some kind of “coma,” that He simply began to “feel better” in the tomb, that He somehow rolled away the massive stone blocking the tomb in His battered and weakened state, and that He then presented Himself to His disciples in such a way that they would believe He had been miraculously resurrected by God in power and glory should be considered a stretch too far for even the most desperate of unbelievers.

The Hallucination Theory: This, too, is a highly implausible explanation, suggesting that all of the individual experiences of a resurrected Jesus Christ were mere hallucinations. This is absolutely irrational. Not only does it fail as a matter of common sense and experience—given the number of witnesses, the individual nature of them, the consistency of the belief, the nature of hallucinations, etc.—but it also fails to explain all of the historical evidence. If the risen Jesus Christ were only an illusion born of hallucination, the tomb would not be empty, and the enemies of the Church could have easily exposed the hallucinations for what they were.

The Great Lie: Finally, is it possible that the Apostles and other disciples were simply lying? Is it possible that the first-century accusations were true and that the disciples came one night and, with no one watching—ignoring the matter of the guards at the tomb—stole Jesus’ body, hid it somewhere, and then simply claimed to have seen Him alive and resurrected?

Not a chance.

History is clear: The Apostles and the early disciples did not merely proclaim their belief in the risen Jesus Christ with their lives; they proved that belief in their deaths. The witness of history concerning their witness is that many of them were executed and torturously murdered because they would not stop declaring that they had seen Jesus Christ alive again, risen from the dead. They reported that He had spoken to them, that they had eaten with Him, that they had touched Him—that He wasn’t a “ghost” or “apparition,” but that He was really and truly resurrected from the dead. And because they had seen Him alive, they knew beyond doubt that He truly was coming again to establish His kingdom and that the message they proclaimed was true.

They were willing to be tortured to death for that proclamation. History has no record of even one of the Apostles recanting or denying what they knew to be true. Not one.

Would they have been willing to be tortured to death for something they knew to be a lie? Would you?

The best explanation of the facts of history is simple: That Jesus Christ was raised to life again by God, three days and three nights after His crucifixion and burial. He did rise, and His first disciples voluntarily sacrificed their lives to pass that truth on to us, so that we might believe in Him through their word (John 17:20).

The Risen Jesus Christ Gives Us Power and Hope

The fact of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead changes everything. It means that His testimony was true. The sign He gave for the authenticity of His message was fulfilled.

It means that He really is the Son of God. It means that there really is forgiveness of sins for those who repent and turn obediently to God in His name. It means that He really is going to come back and bring a new world to replace this one. It means that death has been conquered and the rest of the dead really are going to be raised: “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20–22).

If the resurrection of Jesus did not happen, the Gospel of the Kingdom of God is a fantasy. But if it did, the preaching of the return of the living Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God is the single most important message the world could ever hear. It also means that we can take heart that Galatians 2:20 is true—we can truly believe that Jesus Christ is living within those of us who are forgiven and who possess God’s Holy Spirit. We can truly believe that we are never alone, we can truly believe that His promises are true, and we can truly believe that He is coming again—for, truly, He did rise.