The Historical Resurrection of Jesus

Untitled design (2).jpg

No other event in human history is of more importance than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

The late evangelist Billy Graham attested to this truth when he told of his encounter with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer:

I was invited to have coffee one morning with Konrad Adenauer before he retired as the Chancellor of Germany. When I walked in, I expected to meet a tall, stiff, formal man who might even be embarrassed if I brought up the subject of religion. After the greeting, the Chancellor suddenly turned to me and said, “Mr. Graham, what is the most important thing in the world?” Before I could answer, he had answered his own question. He said, “The resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ is alive, then there is hope for the world. If Jesus Christ is in the grave, then I don’t see the slightest glimmer of hope on the horizon.” Then he amazed me by saying that he believed that the resurrection of Christ was one of the best-attested facts of history. He said, “When I leave office, I intend to spend the rest of my life gathering scientific proof of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” It was the fact of the resurrection of Christ that called the disciples to go out as burning young revolutionaries to change the world of their day. They preached that Christ is alive. This should be our message every day of the year.

The ramifications of the resurrection are far reaching.  Germany had just been reduced to rubble following the world war that nation caused.  The atrocities of the holocaust had not yet been fully realized.  The best research on casualties during the war and its aftermath place the number of dead at over 60 million people.  One often overlooked consequence of World War II is that a war-weary world, with no more stomach to fight evil, allowed evil communist regimes to take hold in eastern Europe and in China.  Tens of millions more would die at the hands of those totalitarian governments. 

In this setting, Chancellor Adenauer made his remarks to Billy Graham.  Without the promise of life eternal, without the forgiveness of sins, without reconciliation with God, there is no hope for mankind.  Towards the hope that the resurrection promised, Chancellor Adenauer wished to dedicate the rest of his life.

We do not have to rely on blind "faith" or wishful thinking in the resurrection.  We have strong historical evidence the resurrection actually happened.  Now, we can excuse the Chancellor for misunderstanding the nature of the evidence when he said "I intend to spend the rest of my life gathering scientific proof of the resurrection."  The resurrection, however, is 1) an historical event and you do not use the tools of "science" to prove whether an event occurred in history; and 2) the resurrection was a supernatural, not natural, event, so science, which studies the natural world, is impotent to tell us much of anything about a supernatural resurrection. 

We have to use the tools of the discipline of history to look at historical events.  Though the facts of the resurrection of Jesus are well attested, the conclusions drawn from the evidence are not universal.  However, any conclusion must take into account these historical facts, nicely laid out by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, that nearly all historians agree upon:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion.  Crucifixion was a common punishment in the 1st century Roman Empire.  Such an excruciating death was reserved for the lowest classes of criminals and insurrectionists.  All four gospels record Jesus' death by crucifixion.  The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, and 2nd century Roman Historian Tacitus both record that Jesus was executed by crucifixion.  Several other non-biblical sources make the same claim.

Some argue that Jesus did not really die, but merely passed out and appeared to be dead.  Later he revived in the tomb.  This particular assertion is called "The Swoon Theory."

The evidence from the eyewitness accounts, however, claims Jesus was brutally scourged in the Roman fashion.  The scourging alone would deeply bruise and tear the skin and subcutaneous tissues of the subject to the point of death.  (See Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15; John 19:1-6).  For a better understanding of Roman scouring read "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ" by William Edwards, et al. in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 255.11, (21 March 1986): 1457.  Given the nature of Roman scourging, that Jesus survived the cross only to be revived in the tomb is improbable. 

Crucifixion would produce bolts of searing pain in both arms as the sensorimotor median nerve is crushed by the nails driven into the wrists.  Breathing was next to impossible.  In order to exhale, the subject would have to lift up his body, putting strain on his nailed hands and feet, scraping his scourged back along the wooden cross.  Death by crucifixion was essentially death by asphyxiation.  The Romans knew how to kill people.

But, that Jesus stopped breathing is not the only evidence that Jesus actually died.  John relayed his eyewitness account in John 19:34-35 when he said that when a Roman soldier took a spear and pierced the side of Jesus "at once there came out blood and water."  This description is not simply some throw-away line in Scripture.  It is evidence that Jesus suffered a rupture to his pericardium, the sac that surrounds the heart.  This fatal condition would produce a water-like fluid around the heart.  The evidence shows that it is quite likely that Jesus was dead when they brought him off the cross.

Think how silly the Swoon Theory is that after his brutal scourging, his horrific agony on the cross, and the piercing of his side that Jesus only fainted.  His fainting would have had to have fooled the Romans who were experts at killing.  His embalmers would have had to have been fooled as well.  Then, a badly beaten Jesus would have had to have the super-human strength to move the large stone from the tomb entrance.  And then, he would have had do it so quietly so the Romans guards would not have found out about it.  Then, this brutally beaten Jesus would have to appear to the disciples and convinced them that he had risen from the dead in such a way that the disciples would be willing to die for the resurrection.  Now, that would have been more miraculous than the resurrection.  The facts, however, lead to the conclusion that Jesus died by crucifixion.

2. Jesus’ disciples believed that Jesus resurrected and appeared to them.  Something happened to this band of cowards who huddled in an upper room days after the crucifixion.  They were transformed into courageous evangelists.  They believed in the resurrection so much that they refused to deny it even in the face of death.  How do we know all this?  They told us so.  Matthew, John, Peter were eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus.  Matthew declares the resurrection in his gospel, in chapter 28.  John devotes two chapters to the events after the resurrection.  Peter's epistles declare the resurrection, and scholars believe that Mark's gospel is written from what Peter told him.  In these eyewitness accounts they claimed to have seen Jesus alive after the crucifixion.    

Even the most critical scholars attest to the fact that a creed developed among the Christians in Jerusalem that claimed Jesus had resurrected.  Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who rejects the resurrection of Jesus, believes that this resurrection creed circulated among the disciples as early as five years after the crucifixion.

Not only did the disciples claim that Jesus resurrected from the dead, they also believed it.  This conviction sustained them through the most severe persecutions.  The book of Acts is filled with accounts of the disciples suffering for the sake of the resurrection.  There is no historical evidence that any of the disciples recanted their claims of the resurrection.

The issue is that the disciples claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus and believed it, not that their claims are true.  Martyrdom does not mean their belief is true, but it does indicate a sincerity of belief.  While I believe their claims to be true, the fact that they claimed to have seen Jesus alive and believed it puts to rest (with no hope of a resurrection I might add) such theories that the disciples stole the body, or that legends embellished the accounts of the resurrection.

The disciples could not have manufactured the resurrection.  The evidence points to their claims and their belief that it is true.  Many people are willing to give up their lives for something they believed to be the truth.  But, who would face torture and death for something they know to be a lie?  The only explanation for their transformation is that disciples saw the risen Jesus.

3. Paul, who formerly persecuted Christians, became one himself because he believed Christ appeared to him.  Paul, himself, was changed from a staunch hater of Christianity to its most ardent defender.  He claimed this transformation was because the resurrected Jesus appeared to him.  He is a primary eyewitness to the resurrected Jesus.  Like the disciples, Paul's conversion was sincere.  After his conversion he was beaten, imprisoned, stoned several times for preaching the resurrection of Jesus.  He finally was beheaded after he refused to deny the resurrection of Jesus.  The only plausible explanation for this is that Paul must have seen the resurrected Jesus.  The remarkable thing about Paul's conversion is that he had been an enemy of the Christians, yet his testimony is in support of their claims.  With Paul's conversion, the claims of Jesus' resurrection now come from both friends and foes.

4. James, the brother of Jesus, who was a Jewish religious leader and a former antagonist to Jesus, became a Christian because he claimed Jesus appeared to him.  During the time of Jesus on earth, Jesus’ younger brother, James, did not believe his older brother was the Messiah.  James was a pious Jewish leader who often worked in the temple in Jerusalem.  He strictly observed the Jewish law.  His high position in the community meant that he distanced himself from his brother.  This elevated standing among Jewish leadership would change when Jesus later appeared to James, and he became a believer. (See 1 Corinthians 15:7).  The Jewish leadership had James killed because he refused to stop preaching the resurrection.  James’ conversion is another testimony to the resurrection from a foe, and can only be explained by the fact that he saw Jesus alive again.

5. The tomb was empty (and still is).  Though acceptance of the empty tomb is not as universal as the facts above, a large majority of critical scholars agree the tomb was empty.  There is good evidence to believe the tomb was empty.  First, the claims of the resurrection began in Jerusalem where the events took place.  The one thing the Jewish leaders could have done to quiet the reports of Jesus’ resurrection was to produce the dead body of Jesus.  They could not because they didn’t know where his body was.  That fact is amazing because the Jews took all precautions because they knew Jesus predicted his resurrection.  Pilate gave them a Roman guard which put the seal of Rome on the tomb.  In order for the cowardly disciples to steal the body they would have had to fight off the Roman guard and survive the retaliation for having done so.

Second, the reports that the Jewish leaders schemed with the Roman soldiers to have them say the disciples stole the body (Matthew 28:13) indicates that the tomb was empty.  You would not need to make up a story about a missing body if the body weren't missing.

Third, the disciples, who were Jewish, claimed that the first witnesses to the empty tomb were women.  In our day, the testimony of women is given the same regard as of men.  But, in 1st century Israel, the testimony of women was not regarded as trustworthy.  If the disciples were trying to manufacture a lie about the resurrection, they would not have relied on the word of women.  Such an admission would have been embarrassing.  The fact that the gospels record women as the first eyewitnesses lends credibility to the account of the empty tomb.

This fact #5 cuts against theories like the disciples went to the wrong tomb.  Again, all the Jews would have had to do was to go to the "right" tomb to produce the dead body of Jesus.  Also, this theory does not explain the multiple appearances of Jesus to the disciples.  Besides, no other 1st century writing makes a claim that the disciples went to the wrong tomb. 


Any theory that claims to inform us as to what happened must take into account these five facts.  The Swoon Theory cannot explain away Jesus' death, or the fervor for which the disciples proclaimed the resurrection.  An appearance by a beaten and bloodied Jesus would hardly inspire anyone to go to his death proclaiming the resurrection.   The theory that the disciples stole the body cannot account for the fact that they went to their deaths, none of them recanting the resurrection.  The Wrong Tomb theory does not address why the Jewish leaders failed to produce the dead body of Jesus, and does not account for the claims of the disciples that Jesus appeared to them.  There are several competing theories, but the only explanation that reconciles all those historical facts is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.