The Resurrection of Jesus: Fact or Fiction?

In our modern, educated day, we sometimes wonder if traditional beliefs, especially ones about the Bible, are only out-dated superstitions.  The Bible recounts many incredible miracles. But probably the Good Friday and First-Fruits story of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead after his crucifixion seems the most unbelievable. 

Is Jesus Resurrected?
John Singleton Copley, PD-US-expired, via Wikimedia Commons

Is there any logical evidence to take this account of Jesus rising from the dead seriously?  Surprising to many, a strong case can be made that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. And this comes from an argument based on historical data. It is based on evidence and reason, not on religious belief.

This question is worth careful investigation since it directly impacts our own lives. After all, we all will die, no matter how much money, education, health and other goals we achieve in life. If Jesus has defeated death then it gives a real hope in the face of our own approaching death.  Let’s look at the main historical data and the evidence for his resurrection.

The fact that Jesus existed and died a public death that has altered the course of history is certain. One need not look to the Bible to verify that. Secular history records several references to Jesus and the impact he made on the world of his day.

Let’s look at two.

Tacitus: Historical Reference to Jesus

The Roman governor-historian Tacitus referenced Jesus when recording how the Roman Emperor Nero executed 1st-century Christians (in CE 65). Nero blamed Christians for the burning of Rome and then proceeded with an extermination campaign against them. Here is what Tacitus wrote in 112 CE:

‘Nero.. punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also’

Tacitus. Annals XV. 44
Nero, the Roman emperor

Tacitus confirms that:

  1. Jesus was a historical person;
  2. He was executed by Pontius Pilate;
  3. By 65 CE (the time of Nero) the Christian faith had spread across the Mediterranean from Judea to Rome. Also, it had done so with such force that the Roman Emperor felt he had to deal with it.

Notice that Tacitus is saying these things as a hostile witness. We know this because he labels the movement that Jesus started as a ‘wicked superstition’. He opposes it but does not deny its historicity.

Josephus: Historical Reference to Jesus

Josephus was a first century CE Jewish military leader/historian writing to Romans. He summarized the history of the Jews from their beginning up to his time. In doing so. he also covered the time and career of Jesus with these words: 

‘At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that He had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that He was alive’

Josephus. 90 CE. Antiquities xviii. 33

Josephus confirms that:

  1. Jesus existed,
  2. He was a religious teacher,
  3. His disciples publicly proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. 

So it seems from these glimpses back into the past that the death of Jesus was a well-known event. Additionally, his disciples were publicly forcing the contention of his resurrection onto the Greco-Roman world. 

Historical Background from the Bible

Luke, a physician and historian provides further details as to how this faith advanced in the ancient world. Here is his excerpt from the book of Acts in the Bible: 

‘The priests and the captain … came up to Peter and John … They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead…They seized Peter and John… put them in jail…When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished… “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked.’

Acts 4: 1-16

‘Then the high priest and all his associates,… arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. …they were furious and wanted to put them to death….They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.’

Acts 5: 17-40
Apostles Arrested

We can see that the authorities went to great lengths to stop this new belief. These initial controversies and persecutions occurred in Jerusalem. This is the same city where only a few weeks earlier Jesus had been publicly executed and entombed. 

From this historical data, we can investigate the resurrection by weighing all the possible alternatives. Then we can decide which one makes the most sense. We do not have to prejudge by ‘faith’ any supernatural resurrection.

The body of Jesus and the Tomb 

We have only two alternatives concerning the body of the crucified and dead Jesus. Either the tomb was empty on that Easter Sunday morning or it still contained his body.  There are no other options. 

Let’s assume that his body remained in the tomb. As we reflect on the unfolding historical events, however, difficulties quickly arise.

Why would the Roman and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem have to take such extreme measures to stop stories of a resurrection if the body was still in the tomb?

All the historical sources we surveyed indicated hostility by the authorities to the claim of the resurrection. Yet this tomb lay right beside the disciples’ public proclamations of his rising from the dead in Jerusalem! If the body of Jesus was still in the tomb it would have been a simple matter for the authorities to parade Christ’s body in front of everyone. This would have discredited the fledgling movement without having to imprison, torture, and finally martyr them.

Jesus’ Tomb must have been empty

Consider further, thousands were converted to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem at this time. Suppose you had been one of those in the crowds listening to Peter, wondering if his incredible message was believable. (After all, it came with persecution). Would you not have at least taken your lunch break to go to the tomb and take a look for yourself to see if the body was still there?

If the body of Christ was still in the tomb this movement would not have gained any followers in such a hostile environment with such incriminating counter evidence on-hand.

So Christ’s body remaining in the tomb leads to absurdities. It does not make sense. 

Did the disciples steal the body? 

Of course, there are other possible explanations for an empty tomb apart from a resurrection. However, any explanation for the body’s disappearance must also account for these details:  the Roman seal over the tomb, the Roman patrol guarding the tomb, the large (1-2 ton) stone covering the tomb entrance, and the 40 kg of embalming agent on the body. The list goes on. Space does not allow us to look at all factors and scenarios to explain the missing body. But the most contemplated explanation has always been that the disciples themselves stole the body from the tomb. Then they hid it somewhere and were able to mislead others. 

Assume this scenario. Avoid for the sake of argument some of the difficulties in explaining how the discouraged band of disciples who fled for their lives at his arrest could re-group and come up with a plan to steal the body. Three days after they fled at his arrest they planned and executed a most daring commando raid. They totally outwitted the Roman guard. They then broke the seal, moved the massive rock, and made off with the embalmed body. All this without suffering any casualties (since they all remained alive to become injury-free public witnesses shortly afterwards).  Assume that they successfully managed this and then they stepped onto the world stage to start a new faith based on their deception.

The Disciples Motivation: Their Belief in the Resurrection

Many of us today think that what motivated the disciples was the need to proclaim brotherhood and love among men. But look back to the account from both Luke and Josephus. You will note that the contentious issue was “the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead”. This theme is paramount in their writings. Notice how Paul, another apostle, rates the importance of Jesus’ resurrection: 

For … I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died …buried, that he was raised on the third day… he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.. If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless … your faith is futile…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men…. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised – ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’… .

I Corinthians 15: 3-32 (57 CE) 

Who would die for what they knew was a lie?

Clearly, the disciples placed the importance of Jesus’ resurrection, and their witness of it, as central to their message.  Assume that this was really false. The disciples had really stolen the body from the tomb so the counter-evidence against their message could not expose them. They may then have successfully fooled the world. But they themselves, in their hearts and minds, would have known that what they were preaching, writing and creating great upheaval for was false. Yet they gave their lives (literally) for this mission. Why would they do it – IF they knew the basis for it was false?

People give themselves to causes because they believe in the cause for which they fight. Alternatively, they do so because they expect some benefit from the cause. If the disciples had stolen and hid the body, they of all people would know that the resurrection was false. Consider from their own words what price the disciples paid for the spreading of their message. Ask yourself if you would pay such a personal price for a cause that you knew to be false: 

The Personal Price Paid by the Disciples

We are hard pressed on every side… perplexed… persecuted, struck down… outwardly we are wasting away…in great endurance, in troubles, hardships, distresses, in beatings, imprisonments and riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger… beaten … sorrowful … poor … having nothing… ..Five times I received from the Jews the 39 lashes, three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, … , I have been in danger from rivers, from bandits, my own countrymen, from Gentiles, in the city, in the country, in the sea. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep, I have known hunger and thirst… I have been cold and naked… Who is weak and I do not feel weak.

II Corinthians 4: 8– 6:10; 11:24-29 

The Heroic Courage of the Disciples – They must have believed it

The more I consider their unshrinking heroism over decades of suffering and persecution, the more I find it impossible that they did not sincerely believe their message. Not one disciple cracked at the bitter end and ‘confessed’ to avoid execution. None of them gained any worldly advantage from their messages, like wealth, power, and easy life. That all of them could so steadfastly and publicly maintain their message for so long demonstrates that they believed it. They held it as an unassailable conviction. But if they believed it they certainly could not have stolen and disposed of Jesus’ body. A renowned criminal lawyer, who taught law students at Harvard how to probe for weaknesses in witnesses, had this to say about the disciples:

“The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience, and unflinching courage. They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted”

Greenleaf. 1874. An examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice. p.29 

… Compared against historical silence of those in power

Related to this is the silence of the authorities – Jewish and Roman. These hostile witnesses never seriously attempted to tell the ‘real’ story, or show how the disciples were wrong. As Dr. Montgomery states, 

“This underscores the reliability of testimony to Christ’s resurrection which was presented contemporaneously in the synagogues – in the very teeth of opposition, among hostile cross-examiners who would certainly have destroyed the case … had the facts been otherwise”

Montgomery, 1975. Legal Reasoning and Christian Apologetics. p88-89
Jesus is Resurrected!

We do not have the space to consider every facet of this question. However, the unwavering boldness of the disciples and the silence of the contemporaneous hostile authorities speak volumes that there is a case for Christ having risen. This is worth taking a serious and thoughtful examination.  One way to do so is to understand it in its Biblical context. A great place to start are the Signs of Abraham as well as Moses. Though they lived over a thousand years before Jesus, they prophetically foretold his death and resurrection.  Isaiah also prophesied the resurrection 750 years before it happened.