Evidence for the Resurrection Part 2: What Happened after Jesus’ Death?
As we saw in Part 1, a historical case for the resurrection involves establishing three minimal facts about what happened after Jesus’ death – the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection – and then inferring the resurrection hypothesis as the best explanation of these facts. Below I briefly outline the evidence for these facts using standard historical principles.
1. The Empty Tomb
On the Sunday following his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
- The empty tomb is given very early attestation in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In this letter, Paul recites a tradition passed on to him that historians date to within two to five years of the events themselves (Craig, 362). This creed implicitly states that the tomb was empty. The empty tomb is also found in Mark’s old passion source which was used to help compose his gospel, which is dated to no more than seven years after the crucifixion. In addition to Paul and Mark, the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John also independently attest to the empty tomb.
- The narratives in these sources, especially Paul and Mark’s sources, are simple and lack any signs of legendary embellishment. Later forged gospels (e.g., the Gospel of Peter) feature such embellishment.
- All four gospels list women as the primary discoverers of the empty tomb. This detail makes the story more plausible because it adds a factor of embarrassment. In first century Jewish society, women were held in extremely low esteem, and their testimony was not admitted in court. If the story of the empty tomb had originated with the disciples, it seems far more likely that it would feature one of the male disciples, like Peter or John, as the primary witnesses of the empty tomb. However, the most plausible explanation of why women were made the discoverers of the empty tomb is that they were in fact the ones who made that discovery, and the disciples faithfully recorded it despite the fact that it would make their story less credible in the minds of their readers.
- The empty tomb is also corroborated by circumstantial evidence. Given that Christianity began mere weeks after Jesus’ death in the very city where he was executed (Jerusalem), it is highly unlikely that the movement could have gotten off the ground if the tomb were still occupied.
For these reasons, the empty tomb is accepted by a majority of historians who study Jesus, believer and skeptic alike. In the early 2000s Gary Habermas surveyed more than 1,400 papers on the resurrection published since 1975 and found that roughly 75% of scholars accept the empty tomb as historical (Habermas and Licona, 60, 70). In the words of Jacob Kremer, an Austrian specialist in the resurrection, “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb” (Craig, 370).
2. The Post-Mortem Appearances
On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death.
- The earliest and most comprehensive list of the appearances is quoted by Paul in the final part of the creed featured in 1 Corinthians 15:
[Christ] 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 (1 Corinthians 15:5-8).
Given the very early dating of this creed, many of the eyewitnesses, as Paul says, were still alive and able to confirm what was being written about them.
- This basic outline of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances are all independently corroborated in higher detail in the gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and other letters featured in the New Testament.
- The appearances to, and subsequent conversions of, James and Paul are particularly significant as both James and Paul were previously skeptics. James was the brother of Jesus, yet did not believe in him, and Paul was a persecutor of the Christian church.
The fact of the post-mortem appearances enjoys nearly universal acceptance by New Testament critics, as detailed in Habermas’ study. Even Gerd Lüdemann, the leading German critic of the resurrection, himself admits, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ” (Habermas and Licona, 60).
3. The Origin of the Christian Faith
The original disciples suddenly and adamantly came to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.
- The disciples faced a terrible situation after the crucifixion: their leader was dead. First century Jews had no prior belief in a dying, much less rising, Messiah. However, forty days later these same men are seen proclaiming that Jesus had risen, even to the point of persecution and martyrdom themselves. It would most plausibly take something like a resurrection to provoke this kind of turnaround.
- The sincerity of their belief is evidenced by the realization of exactly what they went through. The disciples are seen spending the rest of their lives proclaiming that Jesus had risen, without any payoff from a human perspective. They faced a life of hardship, including beatings, stonings, imprisonments, and for many, torturous executions. As historians Gary Habermas and Michael Licona put it:
The disciples’ willingness to suffer and die for their beliefs indicates that they certainly regarded those beliefs as true. The case is strong that they did not willfully lie about the appearances of the risen Jesus. Liars make poor martyrs (59).
The strength, sincerity, and suddenness of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection therefore has almost unanimous acceptance among critics, again according to Habermas’ study. Indeed, the early Christian movement can hardly be explained without such strength of belief.
Explaining the Facts
While none of these facts by themselves necessarily imply the resurrection, taken together a good case can be made that the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation of all of them together, as we discuss in Part 3.
Many of the insights of this article were gained from the following resources:
The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus – Gary Habermas and Michael Licona
Reasonable Faith – William Lane Craig
See our reviews of these books here.
Were you surprised to learn that these facts are accepted by the majority of historians? Do you agree or disagree that they should be considered facts? Let me know in the comments below!