Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Examining the evidence leads to only one conclusion.
Jesus Christ’s resurrection is the heartbeat of Christianity. Though most denominations have theological differences, one core truth binds the whole lot together: the belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Without the resurrection, Christ never would have been proven to be the Messiah of Israel. Without the resurrection, Christ’s teaching and eternal sacrifice, made to atone for our sins, never would have been verified. Without the resurrection, Christ’s exaltation and ascension to the right hand of the Father never would have been realized. The resurrection is the fulcrum upon which all of Christianity hinges.
The apostle Paul, who experienced Jesus only after Christ’s resurrection, knew full well our faith rises and falls on that important event: “And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty” (1 Cor. 15:14). If Christ were not raised, the church would be meaningless; and we would still be dead in our trespasses and sins.
However, Jesus’ resurrection was real; and though we weren’t there to examine the empty tomb ourselves, God graciously left us ample evidence of the resurrection to corroborate our faith: the New Testament. His Word contains the accounts of the eyewitnesses who encountered the risen Christ. So how reliable is the New Testament?
A Trustworthy Source
Historians rely on ancient texts to gather knowledge of past civilizations. Dr. Daniel Wallace, senior research professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, believes that, when it comes to the New Testament, scholars have an “embarrassment of riches.” Even the classical Greek and Latin writings we rely on to understand the historical movements of world history are not as verifiable as the New Testament.
Read the firsthand accounts of Jesus and other records of the ancient world in Josephus translated and edited by Paul L. Maier.
For example, today we have a mere 27 copies of Livy’s History of Rome, and the earliest of the copies date to the 4th century AD, 300 years after Livy wrote his original. Yet historians admit that without Livy, the struggles of the Roman people and the creation of the empire would have long been forgotten. Livy is a reliable resource for historical events.
Compared to the extant number of copies of the New Testament, however, Livy’s History of Rome is paltry. We have more than 5,600 copies of the Greek New Testament and another 19,000 copies in the Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic languages. In all, we have more than 24,000 New Testament manuscripts.
In addition, the earliest manuscript in existence today dates back to AD 125, mere decades after the New Testament authors penned their Gospels and Epistles. Christian apologist Gary Habermas, an authority on the resurrection of Christ, said in his book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, “The closer the time between the event and testimony about it, the more reliable the witness, since there is less time for exaggeration, and even legend, to creep into the account.”
In short, the New Testament remains a reliable source for communicating historical truth about Jesus’ resurrection.
Early on the day Jesus arose, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women went to the tomb to complete Jesus’ burial process (Lk. 24:1–10). According to their testimony, when they arrived at the tomb they found the stone rolled away. Out of curiosity, they entered the tomb and found Jesus’ body missing. The women claimed two men stood beside the tomb saying, “He is not here, but is risen!” (v. 6).
Interestingly, the Gospel writers consistently and purposefully placed Mary Magdalene as the first eyewitness of Jesus’ empty tomb. Yet a woman’s testimony in the culture of that day was never well received and often was intentionally overlooked. Even in the Gospel of Luke, when the women rushed to share the news of the empty tomb with the apostles, the men considered their story “like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (v. 11). Peter was the only apostle of the 11 who ran to the tomb to see for himself.
If Jesus’ resurrection had been fabricated, the Gospel writers would never have placed Mary Magdalene in the front row of the most significant event of human history. Instead, they would have concocted a story that would have generated more credibility.
What the women saw was only the beginning of what would become a series of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances to the apostles and His followers. The apostle Paul began 1 Corinthians 15 by citing the people to whom Christ appeared. He even told the Corinthians some of the 500 who saw Jesus were still alive, hinting that the resurrection appearances could still be validated by eyewitnesses:
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time (vv. 3–8).
If the resurrection had been fabricated, Paul was opening himself to serious ridicule. Bible commentator Craig Keener wrote, “Paul’s purpose in appealing to witnesses still alive is to invite his readers to check his facts if they doubt his words.”1
Scholars also believe Paul’s opening statement in verses 3–8 should be understood as an ancient creed given to him by Peter and James a mere three to eight years after Jesus’ resurrection. In the Jewish tradition, a rabbi passed down to his students what he learned from his rabbi. Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide said this creed follows the Jewish tradition and “may be considered as a statement of eyewitnesses.”2
But it’s what these eyewitnesses were willing to risk that becomes the greatest proof for the resurrection.
Worth Dying For
When Jesus appeared to the disciples after He rose from the dead, He pulled Peter aside and told him he, too, would suffer a gruesome death because of his love for Jesus and His followers (Jn. 21:18–19). If Jesus had never arisen, the disciples eventually would have disbanded and returned to their original professions.
However, they did not. The resurrection changed the course of their lives; they became evangelists of the risen Savior. As evangelists, they risked everything, even their lives, to defend their testimonies that they witnessed Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Historian Michael Licona explained that, after the resurrection, the disciples positioned themselves in a way that serves as a historical marker, indicating that what they were willing to die for, they truly believed in:
After Jesus’ death, the disciples endured persecution, and a number of them experienced martyrdom. The strength of their conviction indicates that they were not just claiming Jesus had appeared to them after rising from the dead. They really believed it. They willingly endangered themselves by publicly proclaiming the risen Christ.3
Habermas, who has spent his career researching the resurrection, called the evidence supporting it “incontestable.” “What’s at stake here,” he said, “is the truth of the Kingdom of God and eternal life, to which Jesus taught that He was the only path.”4
Two thousand years after the resurrection, we carry that eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ resurrection in our hearts. The same resurrection that forever changed the lives of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the apostles, Stephen, James, Paul, more than 500 witnesses, and untold millions around the world for centuries is at work changing our lives today.
- Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 492.
- Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1983), 99.
- Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010), 366.
- “‘Was There a Literal Resurrection?’ Gary Habermas Responds,” overthinkingchristian.com <tinyurl.com/yavglp6e>.