Of all the miracles of the New Testament, one of the most hotly debated is that of Jesus’ resurrection. As with other supernatural events, many deny the resurrection completely. Belief in this key event in salvation history strikes modern critics and skeptics alike as an embarrassment for the Christian faith. We all know, they claim, that dead people simply do not rise from the dead.
The centrality of the resurrection is highlighted by Paul in his correspondence with the church in Corinth. He includes several items of primary importance in the gospel message, one of them being the resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:3). The importance of this event is so great that if it did not happen, “our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain …. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (vv. 14, 17). It appears Paul is claiming that the resurrection is part of the redemptive work of Christ as well as a hope for the believer’s future. Was the resurrection fact, or fiction?
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
Jesus’ death was hardly a surprise. He foretold his own death a number of times (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:31-33), although his disciples did not understand him clearly (Mark 9:32). Jesus’ foes also hear his claims. During his trial, his opponents offer a garbled account of Jesus’ predictions. Some may have misunderstood his prediction of raising the temple—in other words, his body—in three days (John 2:19-21; Matthew 26:61). Others seem to have understood his meaning, as they asked Pilate to secure the tomb so that the disciples could not steal the body and claim Jesus had risen from the dead (Matthew 27:62-66). Later on, the disciples remember Jesus predictions and were able to understand them clearly thanks to the advantage of hindsight (John 2:22).
The Gospels are Reliable Sources
Despite claims made by radical critics, the Gospels are reliable sources of historical information about the life and time of Jesus and his followers. One of the most important features of the text is verisimilitude, or the authors’ accuracy in depicting the period. The Gospel writers mention real people, places, and events that can be corroborated by historical and archaeological evidence. They not only have the ring of truth, they also include embarrassing details—such as infighting among the disciples (Luke 9:46; 22:24) or Jesus’ humiliating death by crucifixion—that forgers or fiction writers certainly would not include. Scholars do not make such claims about gospels appearing in the second century and later, which have nothing to say about the historical Jesus.
Most importantly, the Gospels appeared when living witnesses could still provide firsthand accounts of the events and dispute their accuracy should the writers have gotten anything wrong. Luke sought out eyewitness testimony in composing his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4), a search for what ancients called the “living voice.” Paul states that numerous witnesses could corroborate the resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:9). Peter and John both include statements testifying about their experience with him (2 Peter 1:16; 1 John 1:1-2).
Women Were the First Witnesses
The biblical Gospels indicate that women were the first witnesses to the empty tomb. At dawn, a group of women including Mary Magdalene discover the vacant tomb. Given the fact that women’s testimony was considered unreliable in a court of law (Rosh Hashanah 1.8), a fictional account of the resurrection would have read much differently. If the account had been made of whole cloth, the accounts would have depicted the disciples discovering the empty tomb. It might have included Peter—given his importance in the Gospels and Acts—or may have included Peter, James, and John, who made up a kind of inner circle among the Twelve. This detail may have been considered embarrassing, as the women boldly go to finish preparing the body of Jesus while the disciples may still be in hiding in Jerusalem.
Opponents Were Converted
The arch-nemesis of Christ in the early church was none other than Saul of Tarsus. The book of Acts makes clear his brutality toward the early Christians. The text includes three references to Saul’s activities: he consents to the execution of Stephen (8:1), dragged believers from their homes to imprison them (8:3), and attempted to expand persecutions from Jerusalem to Damascus (9:1-2). Paul’s conscience may have haunted him for the rest of his life, as he refers to his previous life numerous times (1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:23; 1 Timothy 1:13).
On the way to Damascus, Paul encounters the risen Christ and is converted. His conversion is all the more dramatic because he had no personal ties to Jesus and was a respected member of the same religious establishment that plotted Jesus’ doom. After his Damascus Road experience, Paul changed from the greatest persecutor of the church to its most zealous defender. He also authored of nearly half the books of the New Testament. There would have been little incentive for Paul to choose this transformation willingly, stepping down from a position of respect to join a group that was marginalized and actively persecuted.
Jesus’ half-brother James could be counted as a member of the opposition, although he did not engage in the persecution of the church. Nevertheless, the gospels paint James and the rest of Jesus family as standing opposed to Jesus’ ministry. They believed him mad (Mark 3:21), nor did they accept the message he preached (John 7:5). After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, we read that James had a change of heart and became an associate of Paul in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:19), no doubt because he had seen the risen Lord (1 Corinthians 15:7).
Singular Resurrection was Not a Jewish Belief
The Bible contains only rare examples of resurrection (1 Kings 17:22-23; 2 Kings 4:34), although a few passages seem to indicate God has power over the grave and can raise the deceased (Psalm 49:15; Prov. 15:11; Amos 9:2). During the first century, Jews believed in a general resurrection of the dead at the last day. Religious authorities ask Jesus questions about the afterlife in the New Testament (Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 10:17). This seems to stem from several passages in the Old Testament (Hosea 13:14; Amos 6:1-3; Daniel 12:2). Funerary practices, such as the use of tombs and ossuaries, seem to demonstrate an anticipation of this resurrection.
After Jesus’ death, the disciples seem distraught and disillusioned. His followers either didn’t understand the references to his own resurrection, or they maintained a belief in a general resurrection of the dead like many of their fellow Jews. It is unlikely they expected him to rise from the grave. The inclusion of this detail demands an important answer: if the resurrection did not happen, why include it when it defied Jewish expectations?
Jesus Still Lives Today
Other leaders came and went in Judea. Military messiahs such as Judas of Galilee (AD 6) and Simon Bar Kokhba (c. AD 132-135) may have enjoyed success for a season, but the Roman military machine inevitably crushed them and the rebellions they led. Yet a simple Jewish prophet named Jesus of Nazareth enjoyed success that spilled beyond the bounds of Judea and has enveloped the world over the last two millennia. What made him such a success when so many others failed? This question is especially important when many must have perceived Jesus not only as a failed messiah, but a false one (cf. Deuteronomy 21:23).
Every other prophet and messiah from antiquity has been consigned to the graveyard of history. Their names are little known and rarely remembered. The name of Jesus may be found everywhere today in the hearts and on the lips of men and women, who see his resurrection as the prototype of their own (Philippians 3:21). Believing in the resurrection of Christ is not a matter of pious naïveté, but of confidence in the historical record. An empty tomb discovered early one spring Sunday morning two millennia ago gives us persistent hope that darkness and death will never have the final word. And there is no reason to think otherwise.