Evidence for the Resurrection
By Matt Perman
If you wanted to disprove Christianity, what
would you do? The way to disprove Christianity is to disprove the
resurrection of Christ. Why? Because Christianity is founded upon
the resurrection. If the resurrection goes, so does Christianity.
I know that there are many pastors and scholars today who claim
to be Christians, yet deny the resurrection. But according to the
Bible, if you deny the resurrection you are not a Christian. In
fact, if there was no resurrection, there is no Christianity at
all. It would do you as much good as living your life with an
imaginary friend. The apostle Paul said very clearly in 1
Corinthians 15:17 "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is
worthless; you are still in your sins." He goes on to say "If we
have hoped in Christ for this life only, we are of all men most
to be pitied."
So the issue before us tonight is very significant. Did Jesus
Christ rise from the dead? I hope I can show you tonight that He
did. Christianity is a reasonable faith. You do not need to leap
into the dark to accept it. There are solid reasons for it.
Before beginning, I need to make it clear that the resurrection
of Christ is an event of history. It didn't occur in some
mystical fantasy land or some special category of religious
history. It happened in real space-time. Its occurrence was just
as real and concrete as my speaking here to you tonight.
Therefore, we should seek to discover whether it is true or false
in the same way we investigate any other historical event, such
as the civil war.
The way historians determine the truth of an event is by weighing
the evidence. A method commonly used today is "inference to the
best explanation." William Lane Craig describes this as an
approach where we "begin with the evidence available to us and
then infer what would, if true, provide the best explanation of
that evidence." In other words, we ought to accept an event as
historical if it gives the best explanation for the evidence
Since the resurrection is an event of history, we should treat it
the same way. And as we examine the historical events surrounding
the claim that Christ rose from the dead, we will see that the
resurrection is by far the best explanation for the evidence.
There is no other theory that even come close to accounting for
the evidence. Therefore, we ought to accept the truth that Jesus
Christ rose from the dead.
The second thing I want to make sure is clear before I being is
that in establishing that the resurrection really happened, I am
not going to assume that the New Testament is inspired by God or
even trustworthy. While I do believe these things, I am going to
base my case tonight on three truths that even critical scholars
admit. In other words, these truths are so strong that they are
accepted by Christian and non-Christian scholars alike.
Therefore, any theory must be able to adequately account for
The three truths are:
1. The tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered empty by a
group of women on the Sunday following the crucifixion.
2. Jesus' disciples had real experiences with one whom they
believed was the risen Christ.
3. As a result of the preaching of these disciples, which had the
resurrection at its center, the Christian church was established
Virtually all scholars who deal with the resurrection, whatever
their school of thought, assent to these four truths. As I
demonstrate to you the evidence for each of this truths, I will
also show that the resurrection of Christ is the best explanation
for each of them individually. Then after I have established the
truth of each of these, we will see that when these facts are
taken together we have an even more powerful case for the
resurrection--because the skeptic will not have to explain away
just one historical fact, but three. These three truths create a
strongly woven, three chord rope that cannot be broken.
To begin, what is the evidence that the tomb in which Jesus was
buried was discovered empty by a group of women on the Sunday
following the crucifixion?
First, the resurrection was preached in the same city where Jesus
had been buried shortly before. Jesus' disciples did not go to
some obscure place where no one had heard of Jesus to begin
preaching about the resurrection, but instead began preaching in
Jerusalem, the very city where Jesus had died and been buried.
They could not have done this if Jesus was still in his tomb--no
one would have believed them. No one would be foolish enough to
believe a man had raised from the dead when his body lay dead in
the tomb for all to see. As Paul Althaus writes, the resurrection
proclamation "could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a
single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had
not been established as a fact for all concerned."
Second, the earliest Jewish arguments against Christianity admit
the empty tomb. In Matthew 28:11-15, there is a reference made to
the Jew's attempt to refute Christianity be saying that the
disciples stole the body. This is significant because it shows
that the Jews did not deny the empty tomb. Instead, there "stolen
body" theory admitted the significant truth that the tomb was in
fact empty. The Toledoth Jesu, a compilation of early Jewish
writings, is another source acknowledging this. It acknowledges
that the tomb was empty, and attempts to explain it away.
Further, we have a record of a second century debate between a
Christian and a Jew, in which a reference is made to the fact
that the Jews claim the body was stolen. So it is pretty well
established that the early Jews admitted the empty tomb.
Why is this important? Remember that the Jews were opposed to
Christianity. They were hostile witnesses. In acknowledging the
empty tomb, they were admitting the reality of a fact that was
certainly not in their favor. So why would they admit that the
tomb was empty unless the evidence was too strong to be denied?
Dr. Paul Maier calls this "positive evidence from a hostile
source. In essence, if a source admits a fact that is decidedly
not in its favor, the fact is genuine."
Third, the empty tomb account in the gospel of Mark is based upon
a source that originated within seven years of the event it
narrates. This places the evidence for the empty tomb too early
to be legendary, and makes it much more likely that it is
accurate. What is the evidence for this? I will list two pieces.
A German commentator on Mark, Rudolf Pesch, points out that this
pre-Markan source never mentions the high priest by name. "This
implies that Caiaphas, who we know was high priest at that time,
was still high priest when the story began circulating." For "if
it had been written after Caiaphas' term of office, his name
would have had to have been used to distinguish him from the next
high priest. But since Caiaphas was high priest from A.D. 18 to
37, this story began circulating no later than A.D. 37, within
the first seven years after the events," as Michael Horton has
summarized it. Furthermore, Pesch argues "that since Paul's
traditions concerning the Last Supper [written in 56] (1 Cor 11)
presuppose the Markan account, that implies that the Markan
source goes right back to the early years" of Christianity
(Craig). So the early source Mark used puts the testimony of the
empty tomb too early to be legendary.
Fourth, the empty tomb is supported by the historical reliability
of the burial story. NT scholars agree that he burial story is
one of the best established facts about Jesus. One reason for
this is because of the inclusion of Joseph of Arimethea as the
one who buried Christ. You see, Joseph was a member of the Jewish
Sanhedrein, a sort of Jewish supreme court. People on this ruling
class were simply too well known for fictitious stories about
them to be pulled off in this way. This would have exposed the
Christians as fraud's. So they couldn't have circulated a story
about him burying Jesus unless it was true. Also, if the
burial account was legendary, one would expect to find
conflicting traditions--which we don't have.
But how does the reliability of Jesus' burial argue that the tomb
was empty? Because the burial account and empty tomb account have
grammatical and linguistic ties, indicating that they are one
continuous account. Therefore, if the burial account is accurate
the empty tomb is likely to be accurate as well. Further, if the
burial account is accurate then everyone knew where Jesus was
buried. This would have been decisive evidence to refute the
early Christians who were preaching the resurrection--for if the
tomb had not been empty, it would have been evident to all and
the disciples would have been exposed as frauds at worst, or
insane at best.
Fifth, Jesus' tomb was never venerated as a shrine. This is
striking because it was the 1st century custom to set up a shrine
at the site of a holy man's bones. There were at least 50 such
cites in Jesus' day. Since there was no such shrine for Jesus, it
suggests that his bones weren't there.
Sixth, Mark's account of the empty tomb is simple and shows no
signs of legendary development. This is very apparent when we
compare it with the gospel of Peter, a forgery from about 125.
This legend has all of the Jewish leaders, Roman guards, and many
people from the countryside gathered to watch the resurrection.
Then three men come out of the tomb, with their heads reaching up
to the clouds. Then a talking cross comes out of the tomb! This
is what legend looks like, and we see none of that in Mark's
account of the empty tomb--or anywhere else in the gospels for
Seventh, the tomb was discovered empty by women. Why is this
important? Because the testimony of women in 1st century Jewish
culture was considered worthless. As Craig says, "if the empty
tomb story were a legend, then it is most likely that the male
disciples would have been made the first to discover the empty
tomb. The fact that despised women, whose testimony was deemed
worthless, were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb
can only be plausibly explained if, like it or not, they actually
were the discoverers of the empty tomb."
Because of the strong evidence for the empty tomb, most recent
scholars do not deny it. D.H. Van Daalen has said, "It is
extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical
grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or
philosophical assumptions." Jacob Kremer, who has specialized in
the study of the resurrection and is a NT critic, has said "By
far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical
statements about the empty tomb" and he lists twenty-eight
scholars to back up his fantastic claim.
I'm sure you've heard of the various theories used to explain
away the empty tomb, such as that the body was stolen. But those
theories are laughed at today by all serious scholars. In fact,
they have been considered dead and refuted for almost a hundred
years. For example, the Jews or Romans had no motive to steal the
body--they wanted to suppress Christianity, not encourage it by
providing it with an empty tomb. The disciples would have had no
motive, either. Because of their preaching on the resurrection,
they were beaten, killed, and persecuted. Why would they go
through all of this for a deliberate lie? No serious scholars
hold to any of these theories today. What explanation, then, do
the critics offer, you may ask? Craig tells us that "they are
self-confessedly without any explanation to offer. There is
simply no plausible natural explanation today to account for
Jesus' tomb being empty. If we deny the resurrection of Jesus, we
are left with an inexplicable mystery." The resurrection of Jesus
is not just the best explanation for the empty tomb, it is the
only explanation in town!
Next, there is the evidence that Jesus' disciples had real
experiences with one whom they believed was the risen Christ.
This is not commonly disputed today because we have the testimony
of the original disciples themselves that they saw Jesus alive
again. And you don't need to believe in the reliability of the
gospels to believe this. In 1 Cor. 15:3-8, Paul records an
ancient creed concerning Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection
appearances that is much earlier than the letter in which Paul is
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I
also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the
Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the
third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to
Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than
five hundred brethren at one time...
It is generally agreed by critical scholars that Paul receive
this creed from Peter and James between 3-5 years after the
crucifixion. Now, Peter and James are listed in this creed as
having seen the risen Christ. Since they are the ones who gave
this creed to Paul, this is therefore a statement of their own
testimony. As the Jewish Scholar Pinchahs Lapide has said, this
creed "may be considered the statement of eyewitnesses."
Now, I recognize that just because the disciples think they saw
Jesus doesn't mean that they really did. There are three possible
1. They were lying
Which of these is most likely? Were they lying? On this view, the
disciples knew that Jesus had not really risen, but they made up
this story about the resurrection. But then why did 10 of the
disciples willingly die as martyrs for their belief in the
resurrection? People will often die for a lie that they believe
is the truth. But on this view, if Jesus did not rise, the
disciples knew it. Thus, they wouldn't have just been dying for a
lie that they mistakenly believed was true. They would have been
dying for a lie that they knew was a lie. Ten people would not
all give their lives for something they know to be a lie.
Furthermore, after witnessing events such as Watergate, can we
reasonably believe that the disciples could have covered up such
2. They hallucinated
3. They really saw the risen Christ
Because of the absurdity of the theory that the disciples were
lying, we can see why almost all scholars today admit that, if
nothing else, the disciples at least believed that Jesus appeared
to them. But we know that just believing something to be true
doesn't make it true. Perhaps the disciples were wrong and had
been deceived by a hallucination?
The hallucination theory is untenable because it cannot explain
the physical nature of the appearances. The disciples record
eating and drinking with Jesus, as well as touching him. This
cannot be done with hallucinations. Second, it is highly unlikely
that they would all have had the same hallucination.
Hallucinations are highly individual, and not group projections.
Imagine if I came in here and said to you, "wasn't that a great
dream I had last night?" Hallucinations, like dreams, generally
don't transfer like that! Further, the hallucination theory
cannot explain the conversion of Paul, three years later. Was
Paul, the persecutor of Christians, so hoping to see the
resurrected Jesus that his mind invented an appearance as well?
And perhaps most significantly, the hallucination theory cannot
even deal with the evidence for the empty tomb.
Since the disciples could not have been lying or hallucinating,
we have only one possible explanation left: the disciples
believed that they had seen the risen Jesus because they
really had seen the risen Jesus. So, the resurrection
appearances alone demonstrate the resurrection. Thus, if we
reject the resurrection, we are left with a second inexplicable
mystery--first the empty tomb and now the appearances.
Origin of the Christian Faith
Finally, the existence of the Christian church is strong proof
for the resurrection. Why is this? Because even the most
skeptical NT scholars admit that the disciples at least believed
that Jesus was raised from the grave. But how can we explain the
origin of that belief? There are three possible causes: Christian
influences, pagan influences, or Jewish influences.
Could it have been Christian influences? Craig writes, "Since the
belief in the resurrection was itself the foundation for
Christianity, it cannot be explained as the later product of
Christianity." Further, as we saw, if the disciples made it up,
then they were frauds and liars--alternatives we have shown to be
false. We have also shown the unlikeliness that they hallucinated
But what about pagan influences? Isn't it often pointed out that
there were many myths of dying and rising savior gods at the time
of Christianity? Couldn't the disciples have been deluded by
those myths and copied them into their own teaching on the
resurrection of Christ? In reality, serious scholars have almost
universally rejected this theory since WWII, for several reasons.
First, it has been shown that these mystery religious had no
major influence in Palestine in the 1st century. Second, most of
the sources which contain parallels originated after Christianity
was established. Third, most of the similarities are often
apparent and not real--a result of sloppy terminology on the part
of those who explain them. For example, one critic tried to argue
that a ceremony of killing a bull and letting the blood drip all
over the participants was parallel to holy communion. Fourth, the
early disciples were Jews, and it would have been unthinkable for
a Jew to borrow from another religion. For they were zealous in
their belief that the pagan religions were abhorrent to
Jewish influences cannot explain the belief in the resurrection,
either. 1st century Judaism had no conception of a single
individual rising from the dead in the middle of history. Their
concept was always that everybody would be raised together at the
end of time. So the idea of one individual rising in the middle
of history was foreign to them. Thus, Judaism of that day could
have never produced the resurrection hypothesis. This is also
another good argument against the theory that the disciples were
hallucinating. Psychologists will tell you that hallucinations
cannot contain anything new--that is, they cannot contain any
idea that isn't already somehow in your mind. Since the early
disciples were Jews, they had no conception of the messiah rising
fro the dead in the middle of history. Thus, they would have
never hallucinated about a resurrection of Christ. At best, they
would have hallucinated that he had been transported directly to
heaven, as Elijah had been in the OT, but they would have never
hallucinated a resurrection.
So we see that if the resurrection did not happen, there is no
plausible way to account for the origin of the Christian faith.
We would be left with a third inexplicable mystery.
These are three independently established facts that we have
established. If we deny the resurrection, we are left with at
least three inexplicable mysteries. But there is a much, much
better explanation than a wimpy appeal to mystery or a
far-fetched appeal to a stolen body, hallucination, and mystery
religion. The best explanation is that Christ in fact rose from
the dead! Even if we take each fact by itself, we have good
enough evidence. But taken together, we see that the evidence
becomes even stronger. For example, even if two of these facts
were to be explained away, there would still be the third truth
to establishes the fact of the resurrection.
These three independently established facts also make alternative
explanations less plausible. It is generally agreed that the
explanation with the best explanatory scope should be accepted.
That is, the theory that explains the most of the evidence is
more likely to be true. The resurrection is the only hypothesis
that explains all of the evidence. If we deny the resurrection,
we must come up with three independent natural explanations, not
just one. For example, you would have to propose that the Jews
stole the body, then the disciples hallucinated, and then somehow
the pagan mystery religions influenced their beliefs to make them
think of a resurrection. But we have already seen the
implausibility of such theories. And trying to combine them will
only make matters worse. As Gary Habermas has said, "Combining
three improbable theories will not produce a probable
explanation. It will actually increase the degree of
improbability. Its like putting leaking buckets inside each
other, hoping each one will help stop up the leaks in the others.
All you will get is a watery mess."
Before examining, briefly, the implications of the resurrection,
I wish to take a quick look at perhaps the most popular theory
today against the resurrection--that it was a legend that
developed over time. I have had an extensive debate with an
atheist over this issue in a small magazine called The
Skeptical Review, and I'm still waiting for him to give me a
good argument. The facts we have established so far are enough to
put to rest any idea of a legend.
First, we have seen that the testimony of the resurrection goes
back to the original experiences. Remember the eyewitness creed
of 1 Cor. 15? That is the first-hand testimony of Peter and
James. So it is not the case that the resurrection belief evolved
over time. Instead, we have testimony from the very people who
claimed to have experienced it. Second, how can the myth theory
explain the evidence for the empty tomb? Third, the myth theory
cannot explain the origin of the Christian faith--for we have
already seen that the real resurrection of Christ is the only
adequate cause for the resurrection belief. Fourth, the myth
theory cannot explain the conversion of Paul. Would he be
convinced by a myth? His conversion was in fact too early for any
myth to have developed by then. How then can we explain his
conversion? Do we dare accuse him of lying when he said he saw
the risen Christ? Fifth, we have seen the evidence that the empty
tomb story in Mark was very early--within seven years of the
events. That is not long enough for legends. Sixth, we have seen
that the empty tomb narrative lacks the classic traits of
legendary development. Seventh, critical scholars agree that the
resurrection message was the foundation of the preaching of the
early church. Thus, it could not have been the product of the
later church. Ninth, there is very good evidence that the gospels
and Acts were written very early. For example, the book of Acts
never records the death of Paul, which occurred in about 64, or
the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in 70. Since both
Jerusalem and Paul are key players in the book of Acts, it seems
strange that their demises would be omitted. The best explanation
seems to be that Paul's death and Jerusalem's destruction are
omitted because the book of Acts had been completed before they
happened. This means that Acts was written before 64, when Paul
died. Since Acts is volume 2 of Luke's writings, the book of Luke
being the first, then the Gospel of Luke was even earlier,
perhaps 62. And since most scholars agree that Mark was the first
gospel written, that gospel would have been composed even
earlier, perhaps in the late 50s. This brings us within twenty
years of the events, which is not enough time for legends to
develop. So the legend theory is not very plausible.
On the basis of the evidence we have seen, it appears to me that
the resurrection is the best explanation. It explains the empty
tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the existence of the
Christian church. No other competing theory can explain all three
of these facts. In fact, none of these competing theories can
even give a satisfying explanation for even one of these facts.
So it seems like the rational person will accept that Jesus
Christ rose from the dead.
Importance of the Resurrection
But, in conclusion, don't we have to ask ourselves what
implications this has? Why does it matter? Or is this some dry,
dusty old piece of history that has no relevance to our lives? I
believe that the resurrection is the most important truth in the
world. It has far reaching implications on our lives.
First, the resurrection proves that the claims Jesus made about
himself are true. What did Jesus claim? He claimed to be God. One
might say, "I don't believe that He claimed to be God, because I
don't believe the Bible." But the fact is that even if we take
only the passages which skeptical scholars admit as authentic, it
can still be shown that Jesus claimed to be God. I have written a
paper to demonstrate this. So it is impossible to get around the
fact that Jesus claimed to be God. Now, if Jesus had stayed dead
in the tomb, it would be foolish to believe this claim. But since
He rose from the dead, it would be foolish not to believe it. The
resurrection proves that what Jesus said about Himself is
true--He is fully God and fully man.
Second, have you ever wondered what reason there is to believe in
the Bible? Is there good reason to believe that it was inspired
by God, or is it simply a bunch of interesting myths and legends?
The resurrection of Jesus answers the question. If Jesus rose
from the dead, then we have seen this validates His claim to be
God. If He is God, He speaks with absolute certainty and final
authority. Therefore, what Jesus said about the Bible must be
true. Surely you are going to accept the testimony of one who
rose from the dead over the testimony of a skeptical scholar who
will one day die himself--without being able to raise himself on
the third day. What did Jesus say about the Bible? He said that
it was inspired by God and that it cannot error. I will accept
the testimony of Jesus over what I would like to be true and over
what any other merely human scholar has to say. Therefore I
believe that the Bible is inspired by God, without error. Don't
get misled by the numerous skeptical and unbelieving theories
about the Bible. Trust Jesus--He rose from the dead. Therefore
remember as you study the NT in this class, that you are studying
the very words of God.
Third, many people are confused by the many different religions
in the world. Are they all from God? But on a closer examination
we see that they cannot all be from God, because they call
contradict each other. They cannot all be true any more than 2+2
can equal both 4 and 5 at the same time. For example,
Christianity is the only religion that believes Jesus Christ is
God. All other religions say that he was a good man, but not God.
Clearly, they cannot both be right! Somebody is wrong. How are we
to know which religion is correct? By a simple test: which
religion gives the best evidence for its truth? In light of
Christ's resurrection, I think that Christianity has the best
reasons behind it.
Jesus is the only religious leader who has risen from the dead.
All other religious leaders are still in their tombs. Who would
you believe? I think the answer is clear: Jesus' resurrection
proves that what He said was true. Therefore, we must accept his
statement to be the only way to God: "I am the way, the truth,
and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through
Fourth, the resurrection of Christ proves that God will judge the
world one day. The apostle Paul said, "God is now declaring to
men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day
in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man
whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by
raising Him from the dead." The resurrection of Christ proves
something very personal and significant to each of us--we will
have to give an account of ourselves to a holy God. And if we are
honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that we do not
measure up to his standard. We are sinful, and therefore deserve
to be condemned at His judgement.
Which leads to our fifth point. The resurrection of Christ
provides genuine hope for eternal life. Why? Because Jesus says
that by trusting in Him, we will be forgiven of our sins and
thereby escape being condemned at the judgement. You see, the NT
doesn't just tell us that Christ rose from the dead and leave us
wondering why He did this. It answers that He did this because we
are sinners. And because we have sinned, we are deserving of
God's judgment. God is angry with us all because we have attacked
His glory. Since God is just, He cannot simply let our sins go.
The penalty for our sins must be paid.
The good news is that God, out of His love, became man in Jesus
Christ in order to pay the penalty for sinners. On the cross,
Jesus died in the place of those who would come to believe in
Him. He took upon Himself the very death that we deserve. The
apostle Paul says "He was delivered up because of our sins." But
the apostle Paul goes on to say "He was raised to life because of
our justification." Paul is saying that Christ's resurrection
proves that His mission to conquer sin was successful. His
resurrection proves that He is a Savior who is not only willing,
but also able, to deliver us from the wrath of God that is coming
on the day of judgement. The forgiveness that Jesus died and rose
to provide is given to those who trust in Him for salvation and a
Let me close with the sixth reason the resurrection is
significant. The Bible says that Christ's resurrection is the
pattern that those who believe in Him will follow. In other
words, those who believe in Christ will one day be resurrected by
God just as He was. The resurrection proves that those who trust
in Christ will not be subject in eternity to a half-human
existence in just their souls. It proves that our bodies will be
resurrected one day. Because of the resurrection of Christ,
believers will one day experience, forever, the freedom of having
a glorified soul and body.
So, in sum, we have seen that there are many good reasons to
believe in the resurrection--which even critical scholars accept,
and many strong reasons why it is important to believe in the
resurrection. I encourage you to keep thinking about these
things, and remember--Christianity is a reasonable faith.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the
New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963,
1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.
This fine article comes from CONTEND
FOR THE FAITH to whom we are grateful.
MUSELTOF COUNTERCULT AND