“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, 12-19)
Paul wrote these words to the Corinthian church around AD 55 in response to the belief that the physical was evil and could have no part in eternity. Nearly two-thousand years later, they still speak truth, although for a slightly different reason. Whether we will continue on in physical form after death or not, many still deny that Jesus existed, let alone was raised from the dead. If they are right, as Paul points out, those who teach Jesus’ resurrection blaspheme against God, and those who believe in Jesus’ resurrection “are of all people most to be pitied.” Are we to be pitied? Not if it’s the truth.
The first issue is determining if Jesus actually existed. In addition to the several authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude) of the New Testament who wrote their stories and letters with little collaboration, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also mentioned Him: “At this time there was a wise man named Jesus. His conduct was good and [he] was known to be virtuous.” The second is discovering if Jesus was crucified, and there are even more accounts to this effect. Josephus mentioned it, but so did Julius Africanus while quoting the historian Thallus, and the Babylonian Talmud goes so far as to mention He was crucified at the Passover. Mara Bar-Serapion agreed that Jesus was believed to be a wise and virtuous man and was killed by the Jews.
The next step is deciding if His tomb was empty. The Bible teaches that Jesus was killed and laid in a tomb. Three days later, several women came by to complete the preparations of His body. By this time the entrance had been covered with a heavy stone and set with a seal (Matthew 27:60, 66). When they arrived, however, the stone was rolled away, and the tomb was empty. The most convincing piece of evidence, besides the eye-witness accounts in the Gospels, was that the Jewish authorities believed it. They even went so far as to bribe Roman soldiers to claim they had fallen asleep and let Jesus’ disciples take the body (Matthew 28:11-15). Whatever the chief priests thought happened to Jesus’ body, they knew it was gone.
The final issue is: was Jesus resurrected? With no video footage or photographic evidence, the closest we can say is: “Eye-witnesses believed He was.” When Jesus was taken away by the soldiers, the disciples scattered (Matthew 26:56). When they thought Him dead, they hid (John 20:19). After He appeared to them, however, they changed. Peter, who had denied knowing Him (Matthew 26:69-75), spoke boldly to entire crowds (Acts 2), stood up to the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-22), endured flogging (Acts 5:40), and went to prison (Acts 12:1-19), but wouldn’t stop preaching. Stephen insisted on Jesus’ resurrection, right up to the moment the Sanhedrin stoned him (Acts 7). In addition, several extra-biblical writers attested to the fact that eye-witnesses died insisting they had seen Jesus, alive and well, after a crucifixion that should have left Him unrecognizably disfigured. Clement of Rome reported the deaths of Peter and Paul. Ignatius, Polycarp, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, and Origen all affirmed that people died because of their belief they had seen Jesus resurrected. While many may die for a belief, these are martyrs who died for what they claimed they saw. They had no reason to lie. Saying Jesus had not risen would have given them a chance for a relatively peaceful, prosperous life. Insisting He was raised brought them multiple scourgings, imprisonments, and horrific deaths.
In addition, Paul, a vehement persecutor of the church (Acts 9:1-2) and James, Jesus’ brother and a confirmed skeptic (John 7:2-5), both claimed to have seen Jesus after His resurrection. And both died, refusing to recant that belief. Again, claiming Jesus had risen granted them no earthly rewards. Paul went from a respected, powerful member of the Jewish leadership to a near-vagrant, constantly working, traveling, and preaching with occasional breaks for prison. James was known for doing the right thing. He didn’t believe in Jesus until he had seen proof that Jesus was the Messiah. In response, he became a leader of the church of Jerusalem—a church that was continuously persecuted.
There are several theories that attempt to explain away the facts of the story. Some say the witnesses experienced a mass hallucination—despite the fact hallucinations are, by definition, flaws in an individual’s brain and not something a multitude could experience jointly. Others say the disciples stole His body. But, again, if they did, why would they suffer and die for something they knew wasn’t true? Others insist Jesus didn’t die on the cross, He merely fainted or lapsed into a coma. Jesus’ wounds were not only the scars on his hands, feet, and side. There was also the flesh ripped off his body from the lashing and the wounds from the crown of thorns. A dehydrated, beaten, crucified man could not have “recovered” after three days in a cool tomb and single-handedly rolled a giant stone away from a cave entrance. Even if Jesus was somehow able to escape from the tomb in that condition, He would not have exhibited any kind of resurrection life that anyone else would want to experience.
Jesus lived, was crucified, raised on the third day, and was seen by many. The Jewish authorities tried to cover it up with money. The Roman government tried to silence it with violence. Modern skeptics try to argue it away. But there is no theory that can explain the eye-witness accounts except that Jesus really was resurrected. Because of that, we can have hope that we, too, will rise one day and meet Him.