Caravaggio Jesus risen at Emmaus imageWhat evidence is there that Jesus rose from the dead?

Problem

If Christians claim that the resurrection of Jesus was an historical event - then what evidence is there that this is true? Even when we consider the evidence aren't there other - just as rational - explanations for what happened?

Summary of the answer

Christians claim that Jesus actually rose from the dead. They claim this, not through blind obedience to a dogma but because they believe that there is sufficient evidence to back up the claim.

There are not just eye witness accounts in the historical documents of the New Testament but certain facts about the situation that have never been seriously questioned. All the available evidence points to: the crucifixion and death of a man called Jesus; the existence of an empty tomb; the people who first claimed that Jesus rose from the dead firmly believing that this is exactly what had happened; several of those who were critical of Jesus dramatically changing their view after claiming to have see the risen Jesus.

There is no credible answer to the existence of these facts that than Jesus actually did rise from the dead.

Fuller answer

A look at the evidence for the resurrection. We take a look at what happened followed by five facts that support the resurrection. This is then followed by an exploration of some of the objections people have made.

What actually happened?

When Jesus had died his body was removed from the cross and given to his family for burial in a tomb lent by one of his supporters. In accordance with Jewish burial customs the body was wrapped in linen. It was then laid in the tomb - which had been cut out of solid rock. A very large rock was placed over the entrance to the tomb (usually for a burial cave this would have been approx 2 tonnes in weight and would have required levers to place it). This rock was then sealed by order of the Roman Governor and experienced Roman soldiers were given the task of guarding the tomb in case Jesus' followers should steal the body.

We have evidence from eyewitness accounts

Most, if not all, of the New Testament was written within the life span of the people who witnessed the events surrounding the resurrection. These documents, which were written either by those who witnessed the events first hand, or related the experiences of those who had, were widely circulated among the populace. If there was any major discrepancy then it is clear that this would have been raised and cleared up. We also discover that when the apostles preached they appealed to the common knowledge of the events of holy week, even when facing their fiercest opponents.

There are five facts that help support the resurrection of Jesus

  1. Jesus was killed by crucifixion
  2. Jesus' disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them
  3. The conversion of the church persecutor Paul
  4. The conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus' half-brother
  5. Jesus' tomb was empty

These are taken from and developed more fully than here in Lee Strobel's book 'The case for the real Jesus'

Jesus was killed by crucifixion

First of all we have incontrovertible proof that Jesus was crucified. It is mentioned in all four of the gospels (treating them here as historical records and not just part of the Bible) and it is also mentioned by other historians like Tacitus and Josephus. It's even mentioned in the Jewish Talmud.

Second, the chances of survival were extremely small for anyone who was crucified. Victims were scourged (whipped so severely that witnesses of crucifixions report seeing intestines and veins being laid bare). Tacitus referred to crucifixion as 'the extreme penalty.'

We have only one record of anyone ever surviving a crucifixion and this written by Josephus, a Jewish historian. He described how three of his friends were crucified and when he discovers it he asks the Roman commander Titus to save them. They are taken off the cross and given the best of medical care Rome has to offer but only one of them manages to survive, the other two die. So even under the best of conditions (removed quickly and given the best medical care available) a victim was very unlikely to survive.

The Romans who crucified Jesus would have been experts at it, it was their job. They would have known when someone was dead or if someone was trying to fake it, or if someone had just feinted.

To quote Dr Michael Licona, M.A., PH.D. who is a New Testament Historian (quoted from Lee Strobel's book 'The case for the real Jesus')

"Lee, this first fact is as solid as anything in ancient history: Jesus was crucified and died as a result. The scholarly consensus - again, even among those who are skeptical toward the resurrection - is absolutely overwhelming. To deny it would be to take a marginal position that would get you laughed out of the academic world."

Jesus' disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them

There are three bits of evidence that confirm this.

First we have the testimony of Paul about the beliefs of the disciples. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:11 (remember we are treating the Bible as history here not appealing to its authority as the word of God) that he was preaching about the risen Jesus just like the disciples preached.

Second we have an oral tradition. At the time there was no way for normal people to record the things they saw so they developed a way of passing things on and remembering them, one of these ways was through poems or creeds. Several of these creeds are written into the text of the New Testament and one of them is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7:

"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born."

The last part about himself is added on by Paul. Now we know that Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth was written about A.D. 55. The creed must have been in use before this and many scholars believe that Paul was given this creed when he visited the disciples in Jerusalem three years after his conversion. That would be within 5 years of the resurrection!

This doesn't totally rule out deceit but it is far too early to be made up as a development of the early church - it means that this is actually what the disciples were teaching.

We also have summaries of the sermons that the disciples preached just 50 days after the resurrection in which there is no ambiguity about what the disciples were saying: that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Third we have the written sources of the gospels themselves, all written within at least 2 generations of eyewitnesses and the majority written within the generation of Jesus and the disciples.

This is also born out by the writings of the apostolic fathers who were said to have known the apostles or were close to those who did. There is every chance that they would preach the same message that the disciples had and they all preach that Jesus had risen from the dead.

From this evidence it is clear that something life changing happened to the disciples that lead them to believe that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.

Some people have claimed that the disciples might have lied about Jesus rising from the dead but this does not make sense and there is no evidence that they did. We have information that would suggest all of the disciples were killed for what they believed - some of them tortured and killed. It would be crazy to think that people would take a lie so far. The disciples suffered terrible persecution and constantly feared for their lives because they preached that Jesus had risen - they had nothing to gain by doing this.

The conversion of the church persecutor Paul

Paul (also known as Saul) was a fervent persecutor of the early church - this is attested by various sources. Yet Paul says that whilst he was still an enemy of Christians (he was on his way to route some out in Damascus) he personally encounters the risen Christ.

We then know that Paul suffers for his new found faith and is eventually martyred for it. Once again liars do not martyr themselves for something they made up.

Paul is important because he is an enemy of Christians. No one can realistically claim that Paul was primed for an hallucination, he was a most unlikely candidate for conversion.

He had nothing to gain by making it up and so we must conclude that he believed he had actually met the risen Jesus.

The conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus' half-brother

Jesus had several half-brothers and half-sisters. His brothers were called James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon - we don't know what his sisters were called. That James was the brother of Jesus is also attested by other sources.

Mark and John both report that his brothers did not believe in him. We know that this is authentic because it is embarrassing for Jesus and the early Christians. Why write something into a gospel that would be embarrassing unless it is an important part of the story?

This is further confirmed by the fact that Jesus entrusts his mother to one of his disciples and not his brothers - suggesting they had rejected him.

Perhaps it is not surprising to discover that his own brothers did not believe he was the Christ (not yet anyway), it would be hard to believe it of someone you had grown up with.

But then we discover in the early creed mentioned earlier that one of the people who the risen Christ appears to is none other than James - Jesus' brother. As a result of this encounter James doesn't just become another Christian but he becomes the leader of the church in Jerusalem and is even martyred for preaching about Jesus.

So we have a skeptic brother who claims to have seen a risen Jesus and who is also willing to die for preaching about it.

Jesus' tomb was empty

There are three reasons we know that the tomb was empty.

  • The Jerusalem factor
  • Enemy attestation
  • Testimony of women

The Jerusalem factor is simply that the first place that the disciples say they have seen a risen Jesus and the tomb is empty is in Jerusalem. This is of course where the supposed empty tomb is. It would be easy for anyone to go and see for themselves and for the authorities to encourage it. The Christians could have easily been silenced by simply showing the tomb with Jesus still in it.

Some have argued that after 50 days (there are 50 days between the resurrection and the first sermon in Jerusalem about it) that the body would have been so decayed that it would be unrecognisable but this is simply not true. Although it would have decayed significantly the size of the body and its wounds would still have been easy to see. Although grizzly, given the way that the religious leaders were trying to shut them up it would have been obvious to anyone that the way out of this problem was to show the occupied tomb.

The enemy attestation is that the enemies of Jesus tried to put the story around that the disciples had stolen the body. This is very significant because the enemies of Jesus are not claiming the tomb is still occupied but that it is empty. This information also appears in documents outside of the gospels.

Then the first people to go to the tomb are women. Back then the testimony of a woman was not trusted (sorry not my fault - blame the ancient men here). In the ancient world if you were going to concoct a story you wouldn't have women as the first witnesses. By including something which would cause embarrassment to anyone trying to prove that Jesus had risen must mean that this detail is true.

Drawing conclusions

Any one of these bits of evidence on their own does not prove anything. However then they are combined they provide very strong evidence indeed.

Given the five bits of evidence above we can confidently conclude that Jesus returned to life.

Still have questions? Perhaps reading on will provide an answer.

But haven't they found the grave of Jesus in Israel?

It has been more recently claimed that the tomb of Jesus has been found. The only evidence seems to be some names that are carved on the coffins (ossuaries) found in a tomb. The names are said to be the names of the family of Jesus - with one of them being Jesus himself. However there are several reasons why this claim is false:

  • the names are not clear in themselves and may not relate to the same names of Jesus' family;
  • it seems very unlikely that a poor family from Nazareth would have a tomb in Jerusalem;
  • if Jesus had been living in Jerusalem then it would be obvious to anyone who had ever met him (remember thousands came to hear him speak) which would have made a mockery of the Christian claims;
  • it was claimed that the ossuaries of James (Jesus' brother) was also in the tomb (James was martyred for his Christian preaching) but stolen, however the ossuary was later discovered and proved to be a fake;
  • the family names of Jesus were so common at the time that it would be impossible to conclude anything from the findings anyway.

William G. Dever (an eminent Archeologist) said that some of the inscriptions on the ossuaries are unclear, but that all of the names are common. "I've known about these ossuaries for many years and so have many other archaeologists, and none of us thought it was much of a story because these are rather common Jewish names from that period. It's a publicity stunt, and it will make these guys very rich, and it will upset millions of innocent people because they don't know enough to separate fact from fiction."

Amos Kloner, now professor of archaeology at Israel's Bar-Ilan University and author of the original excavation report for the predecessor of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said: "In their movie they are billing it as 'never before reported information,' but it is not new. I published all the details in the Antiqot journal in 1996, and I didn't say it was the tomb of Jesus' family," ..."I think it is very unserious work. I do scholarly work…," Kloner said. "[This film - the documentary that makes the claim] is all nonsense.

You can read more about this on wikipedia

Was the tomb empty because someone had stolen the body?

Stealing bodies has never been seen as a good thing in any society and this is no less true that at the time of Jesus. This means that if anyone was going to steal a body they would have needed a very good reason to do so. There would need to have been something to gain from doing so. However the only valuable thing about the body of Jesus was the cloth that he was wrapped up in and this is left behind. If it was a thief then they would have taken the grave clothes and left the corpse - not the other way around.

Perhaps then it was the disciples who stole the body so they could prove that Jesus had risen from the dead? This is perhaps the strongest argument for what happened to the body apart from resurrection. However let's think about the way the disciples behaved afterwards. At first they go in to hiding - they are terrified in case the same thing should happen to them. They then claim that Jesus has risen from the dead but they don't go out on to the streets at this point - there are fifty days before they do this. Instead they go back to Galilee where they start fishing - presumably because they need the money. Then they return to Jerusalem and begin preaching about how Jesus has risen from the dead. Meanwhile during the fifty days of waiting Jesus appears to many others - including we are told as many as 500.

Now we have to establish a motive for why they would want to steal the body. The only motive would be fame and fortune - perhaps they liked their new lifestyle with Jesus and were reluctant to give it up. However they do not have a rich lifestyle at all. Jesus had nothing himself and told his disciples to give up everything for him. With Jesus the disciples had been living a very frugal life. A successful fisherman could make a comfortable living (food has always been a great way to earn a living - ask any Supermarket owner) and there is every reason to believe that the disciples who were fishermen already had that comfortable living (we read in the Gospels that some of the fishermen who Jesus calls to be disciples were part of a family who had hired fishermen - if you are struggling in business you don't hire extra people). Also a tax collector like Matthew could make a small fortune at his job. Some have claimed that the disciples took all the money from new converts to Christianity so they could use it for themselves, but this is simply not true. We read that the Christians shared everything in common which means that they sold everything and put it into a common purse which was for everyone to use. There is every reason to think that they did this because they expected the immanent return of Jesus. However this is the action of a community and is to be applauded and not seen as disciples grabbing money - it's simply not true. I'm always amazed that critics say they don't accept the Bible is accurate and yet try to argue their own case from the Bible (usually picking and choosing which bits they approve of and which bits they don't).

So perhaps it is just down to fame and not wanting to look foolish, perhaps they enjoyed the influence they had over others? Well the early church did not enjoy such a good reputation - it was severely persecuted and many of its earliest followers were executed (including disciples). In fact, as far as we know they were all killed for what they preached. It is possible that someone would die for something they knew was false but it is very unlikely. If a simple acknowledgment that Jesus had not risen would save them from torture and death I am sure if they knew he hadn't they would have taken the way out of suffering, or at the very least some of them would. It is one thing if people deceive you and so you die for a lie that you believed was the truth it is quite another to suffer agony and die knowing that you set up the lie in the first place. We also know that when Jesus was arrested the disciples ran away and went into hiding, does this sound like the kind of people who would suffer torture and execution for a lie? I don't think so.

The truth is that if the disciples were the kind of people to deceive others for their own ends they would also have been the kind of people who would have been easily persuaded to admit their lie so they could get out of suffering.

We also have to remember that the tomb was guarded and sealed to stop anyone from stealing the body.

Was it because they had gone to the wrong tomb by mistake?

Another theory is that the women, in the darkness of the morning and their distress, went to the wrong tomb and finding it empty went and told the disciples who then followed them to the wrong tomb.

However why don't the religious leaders then simply say: "but here is the tomb of Jesus and it is still sealed"? They don't, and in fact try to blame the disciples for the empty tomb. This is simply a non-starter.

Was it because Jesus had not really died but only swooned on the cross and later revived?

This is one of the main arguments put forward by critics of Christianity and even by some religions. This is based on the gospel evidence that Jesus did not last very long on the cross but was dead in just a few hours. However if you are going to trust the gospel account on the length of time it took Jesus to die on the cross you also have to take into account the other things that the gospels say.

They tell us that Jesus was flogged before he was crucified. Even without the gospels, just knowing Jesus was crucified would be enough to know that he was most likely also flogged, this is common practice for victims of crucifixion. Flogging was also a form of execution and many people died before ever getting to the cross. We also learn that he has had a crown of thorns placed on his head and bean beaten by the guards. Torture was a fairly normal part of the crucifixion process.

Jesus then had to carry his cross to the place where he will be executed but we learn that he doesn't have the strength and so someone is forced to help him. Jesus is already half dead on the way to crucifixion.

Then he is nailed to the cross. Now those who like the swoon theory also point out that sometimes people were tied to the cross and not nailed which would have made it quite possible that Jesus just feinted. However it was far more usual (in fact this is how the Romans did it when it was meant to be a form of execution) to nail someone and this is what the gospels (and other writings) record.

Then the soldiers went to check that each of them was dead. We know that breaking legs was a normal way of ensuring this (legs get broken to suffocate the victim) but Jesus already being dead (e.g. not pushing up on his legs to breath = suffocation) had a spear stuck in his side, and an eyewitness records a flow of blood followed by a flow of water (e.g. his body is empty of blood down to where he has been pierced with the spear). It was usual for the crucified to be thrown out with the trash and so soldiers were required to make sure that those crucified were dead. This was not the first time the soldiers had done this, they knew when someone was dead and when someone was faking it.

Then if we are to believe that Jesus just passed out on the cross we would also have to believe that three days later he was able to get loose from his wrappings, break a seal and push two tonnes of stone away from the tomb (with hands that had been nailed to a cross remember), overcome some hardened Roman guards and then walk around on broken feet as though nothing had happened.

I've already answered the question about a report in Josephus where a friend of his survived crucifixion. Three friends were crucified and quickly removed when Josephus asked. They were then tended by the best medical experts Rome has to offer and yet two of them still died.

The whole idea that Jesus was not really dead and then later revived is just nonsense.

Was it because someone else had died on the cross?

This is another theory put forward by some religions and critics of Christianity.

This is a difficult one to refute simply because it is a fantastic story. I could equally make up a story that an alien space ship abducted Jesus and projected a solid hologram onto the cross to fool everyone into believing Jesus had died. Equally difficult to refute but obviously a fabrication.

For this to work either the person who replaced Jesus would have had to have been a master of disguise (this is first century Palestine remember) or God changed the person to look like Jesus.

So if someone disguised themselves we have to account for all that happened. After Jesus was arrested - identified by a disciple and with a kiss - he was taken before the Sanhedrin for trial. During this trial witnesses were brought forward to identify Jesus. Jesus had become a very public figure in Jerusalem and in particular in the temple. In the temple people had stood nose to nose with him (the Temple is not enormous and it would have been teeming with people). The authorities were very keen to make sure that they silenced Jesus and so would have been more than keen to make sure they had the right person.

Then Jesus is taken before a crowd of people before he is sentenced to crucifixion. It is true that by now he has been flogged and beaten and so his features may be disfigured to some extent but surely someone would have noticed that this was not actually the man they wanted.

Then Jesus is crucified in full view of his family. Although Jesus was battered and bruised it is quite a leap of faith to believe that somehow Mary, his mother, would not recognise her own son. We also know that his mother helped take down the body and prepare it for burial. We also know that she went to the tomb to anoint the body on Easter morning. If she knew that this was a fake would she have risked her own safety to anoint a strangers body.

If we want to claim that God changed someone else into Jesus or that God made Jesus look dead we have to account then for God deliberately deceiving us and continuing the deception by persuading Jesus' disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. This is a strange picture of God.

The gospel writers were simply relating a myth about the risen Jesus which has been added to by others

I've already shown that the first accounts of Jesus rising from the dead are very early - maybe even within a few years of the event.

It usually takes several generations for a myth to develop but we have no evidence that this was true in the case of the resurrection. Indeed the gospels can all be dated to being written within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses of the events. This is not how myths come about.

Also the account of Jesus' crucifixion is so accurate that it is often used by those researching crucifixion as a good description of what happened. Why would they take so much care over getting the historical details of the crucifixion correct and then go and stick a made up myth on the end of it? It doesn't make sense.

Some people argue that the supposed discrepancies in the accounts of the resurrection prove that it never really happened. However the evidence is that each gospel writer had access to the others when they were writing their accounts. If it was a conspiracy or a made up tale then they would simply have copied the details from each other. That eyewitnesses differ in some minor details is more likely to prove the historical authenticity of what happened rather than disprove it.

Perhaps it was some form of hallucination?

The appearances of the risen Jesus might at first sight look like a simple hallucination. But there are some problems with this approach. For instance although some groups do experience 'mass hallucinations' or 'mass hysteria' it is very different from a mass vision. A mass hallucination is when people pick up on the emotional response of someone else. So for instance someone gets very excited in a crowd and so the rest of the crowd start to pick up on this and also get excited. This is not the same as a group of people seeing someone all at the same time.

The other point to make is that hallucinations happen to individuals and not to crowds. It is true that sometimes when a suggestion has been made others pick up on that suggestion and so end up having an hallucination based on that suggestion (I guess we have all had a dream triggered by watching a film for instance) but hallucinations are very individual things.

Some have tried to make a point that visions are different to hallucinations but this distinction is fictional and tends to be used in an attempt to bolster a weak argument. Visions are spiritual experiences whereas hallucinations are imagined images. They tend to use this to suggest that the resurrection appearances are visions and not hallucinations (because the hallucination theory is so weak) so they can bring in a couple of ancient texts that suggest (if you read between the lines) that visions can happen to groups of people. They suggest that this is obviously not true but the writer has built up the vision to sound like it happened to a crowd of people. They then suggest that one person had an hallucination which then was built up by the writers to sound like it was to lots of people. It is very dubious that ancient writers ever did this in the first place and even if they did it does not account for the variety of appearances or that some people took a while to believe it. Or that one of these 'visions' eats some food.

All of the appearances of the risen Jesus happen to different diverse people at different times. They also have very different experiences which suggests they were not sharing an experience triggered by suggestion.

The very real problem is that people do not have strong hallucinations. Let me quote Daniel Dennet (a prominent Atheist) on this one in his book Consciousness Explained.

"Another conclusion it seems we can draw from this is that strong hallucinations are simply impossible! By a strong hallucination I mean a hallucination of an apparently concrete and persisting three-dimensional object in the real world—as contrasted to flashes, geometric distortions, auras, afterimages, fleeting phantom-limb experiences, and other anomalous sensations. A strong hallucination would be, say, a ghost that talked back, that permitted you to touch it, that resisted with a sense of solidity, that cast a shadow, that was visible from any angle so that you might walk around it and see what its back looked like."

It should also be noted that many of the people who saw the risen Jesus did not at first believe it but were converted by the experience. There are also stories of how he cooked a meal for the disciples and invited people to touch him. You can't do this with an hallucination.

There is no way that the appearances in the gospels can be explained as hallucination save by the foolhardy.

Was it because Jesus had in fact risen from the dead?

Like all things there can never be absolute proof for the resurrection. It's one of those logical and philosophical annoyances that it is impossible to prove anything. So we have to work on probabilities by weighing up the evidence.

When I consider the evidence it becomes very apparent to me that there is an awful lot of evidence to support the resurrection and very little to doubt it. The arguments put forward seem to stretch credibility even more than believing in a resurrection. Of course you have to make your own mind up - I can't do that for you.

If you are still not sure then take a look at this page