In 1 Corinthians 15.20 Paul asserts the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ as an historical certainty. There were many in his time who disagreed with him, however, just as there are many in our time who do not hold that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. It is interesting that when Paul asserts the resurrection as historical fact, he doesn’t ask his readers to believe him in blind faith – rather, he gives them evidence for the historical reality of the resurrection. As time has gone on, the evidence in favor of a historical, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ has piled up and we, like Paul, can confidently assert that Jesus Christ is risen. In our Easter Sunday message at Riverview, I briefly shared two pieces of evidence for the resurrection. John Piper and Matt Chandler have done a good job in outlining several other pieces of evidence that are worthy of consideration. What follows is a merely a sampling of the streams of evidence that they and others have put forth in favor of the historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
1. The Bible predicted and testifies to the resurrection. See Isaiah 53 for an Old Testament prediction of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah. Jesus also predicted his own death and resurrection long before it actually happened (see, for example, Mark 8.31, 9.30-32, and 10.32-34). Moreover, the entire New Testament is based on the presupposition that Jesus rose from the dead – an idea firmly planted in the worldview of New Testament writers by the solid evidence of actual eyewitnesses (some of whom were contributors to the New Testament themselves – for instance, Matthew, John, Paul, James, and Peter) to the resurrection. There are very few plausible arguments for doubting the historicity of the Bible when it speaks of the resurrection.
2. The tomb was empty. The Bible contains four historical accounts that declare the tomb in which Jesus was buried was empty. How did the occupant of the tomb vacate its premises? There are several theories as to how this could have occurred naturally or by the power of man, but they are very problematic (a few of these counterarguments were addressed in our Easter Sunday message). The best explanation is that the tomb was empty because God raised Jesus from the dead – just like the Bible says.
3. Hundreds of people saw the resurrected Christ. The gospels report that an unknown number of people saw Jesus after his resurrection. It gives us some numbers here and there (see Luke 24, John 20-21 and Matthew 28), but never a definite count. The Apostle Paul gives a general number of more than 500 who saw him at one time (1 Corinthians 15.6), and that many of them were alive at the time of his writing. In citing these 500 witnesses, Paul is encouraging his readers to go and ask those witnesses about what they saw. He’s saying, “Don’t take my word for it – ask them yourself.” Arguments attempting to explain away the testimony of hundreds of people (such as simultaneous hallucination) are very weak. Put simply, hundreds of people claim to have seen Jesus back from the dead because…hundreds of people saw Jesus back from the dead.
4. The disciples were transformed from cowards to gospel-warriors. The picture of the disciples that the Bible paints is not a very flattering one: they are consistently depicted as men who are not very intellectual, scared of their own shadow, hypocritical, and self-centered. But within the span of two months, the disciples went from cowards who denied Jesus at the time of his death (Mark 15), to emboldened preachers who preached the resurrection under penalty of death (Acts 4). If the disciples didn’t actually see a resurrected Christ, then what could have inspired such a transformational change? If they had stolen Jesus’ corpse (as some believe) they surely would not have had the gospel-boldness they demonstrated in the book of Acts.
5. Jesus’ family believed he was God. The Bible records Jesus’ mother and brother as believing in his deity (it doesn’t tell us whether or not other members of his family believed) This piece of evidence may seem inconsequential on its face, but think about it: how successful would you be in proving to your family that you are God? They would probably laugh you out of the room because they know enough about you to know that you are, without a doubt, not God. The same would have been true of Jesus’ family, but they were convinced. What did they see that convinced them? How about coming back from the dead?
6. Women were the first witnesses of the resurrection, and the first to deliver the news. This piece of evidence doesn’t seem very weighty to us, but it would have been at the time. The word of women in the first century was seen as unreliable. In fact, women weren’t allowed to testify in first century court proceedings because their testimony wasn’t reliable. So then, if the resurrection were a myth, choosing women to perpetuate it would have been very unwise. Why were women the first to deliver the news of the resurrection? Because that’s the way it happened.
7. The primary day of worship moved from Saturday to Sunday. For thousands of years, God’s people worshiped him on the Sabbath day – the last day of the week – in accordance with the 10 Commandments. In the New Testament, however, there is evidence that God’s people began to gather for worship on Sundays because it was the day associated with Jesus’ resurrection (see Acts 20, 1 Cor. 16.1-2, Rev. 1.10-11, etc.). This change is not insignificant. Believers had kept the Sabbath (worship on Saturdays) for thousands of years, and then – rather suddenly – their tradition changed. The historical reality of the resurrection explains that change.