The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the bedrock of Christian doctrine. Mentioned more than one hundred times throughout the New Testament, it was the most salient and fundamental point of the apostolic witness. Following the apostasy of Judas Iscariot, when the apostles determined it was necessary to replace him, the determining factor was one who was “a witness to his [Jesus’] resurrection” (Acts 1:22). This very same resurrection was also the primary point Peter emphasized at Pentecost in his sermon. Likewise, Paul’s delivery to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on Mars Hill rested on the fact of Jesus and the resurrection. Writing elsewhere, the apostle Paul enunciated the importance of the resurrection, that of it being one of two fundamental truths comprising the gospel message (the other being Christ’s atoning death). Namely, “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 (1 Cor. 15:3–4).”

This very passage illustrates the good news. First, that Christ died for our sins, and then that he rose on the third day. Without the bodily resurrection the death was nothing more than a noble demise. But with the resurrection, it is an atoning death of the Son of God, for it shows the sufficiency in covering all the sins of his people. The Christian faith is powerless without the resurrection. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). But Paul regarded the resurrection as a certainty, an indisputable truth about Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Testimony to the Resurrection from the Gospels

Why should anyone trust the accounts in the New Testament regarding the resurrection of Christ? The number of people asking this question is growing at an alarming rate. Too often, people are ready to reject any evidence—relying on their own radical skepticism—even before knowing what the arguments are. Consider just a few of the many.

First, what is striking about the historical records found in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is that they are four separate and independent accounts. This reality is easily attested by the many so-called discrepancies between the narratives. Had the authors been in collusion with each other there would not have been so many seemingly marked discrepancies. But the reality is that harmony can be found between the four accounts, not in a surface-level study but after thoroughly examining the narratives. It is precisely the same harmony that would exist if four different witnesses were called before a court to describe an event each witnessed. Each would do so but from a different perspective and based upon his or her own personality.

So when discussing the Gospels, we are left with two options: they are a record of facts that actually occurred, or they have been fabricated. If the latter and they turn out to be works of fiction, they are either works of fiction as (1) the consequence of independent writers or as (2) the result of collaboration in order to concoct a story. But reason precludes us from being able to accept this idea that the Gospels were fabricated independent of each other. The harmony between each is too great, so the only plausible solution would be that it was a designed fraud. But even this proposition has its own problems. Most notably, it is highly dubious to suggest that four persons who set out to fabricate stories about Jesus would have included so many apparent discrepancies (which, of course, are not discrepancies at all, once one examines the text carefully).

Second, the next striking feature of the Gospel accounts is that each bears the testimony of an eyewitness to the event. Anyone who is familiar with the proceedings of a court or investigates history quickly learns how to distinguish from those who witnessed accounts over against mere hearsay evidence. The Gospel versions of the resurrection bear testimony to eyewitness descriptions and are not just related via secondary means.

Third, the gospels are remarkable in their genuineness, honesty, and simplicity. The accounts speak to supernatural activity, but the events described are most natural. There is a noticeable lack of color commentary and affect contained in the Gospels. Nothing sensational stands out in the telling of the facts as they occurred. Consider this point in your own experience. It is only natural that when we listen to someone relate a past experience, we judge the veracity of the story based on the way the story is related and the character of the storyteller. The more sensational the details, the less likely we are to believe it.

Fourth, there are unintentional indicators in the Gospel accounts. Certain words, phrases, and accidental details provide a sense of legitimacy to the factuality of the events described. It often happens that when someone uses particular, unremarkable words or details, it might prove more convincing than the direct testimony, because it is an authentication to the truth itself. And the Gospel narratives abound in these incidences.

Take, for instance, the fact that in each of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection, we are provided with simple statements that Jesus’ own disciples did not recognize him when he initially appeared to them (Luke 24:16; John 21:4). The authors never explain why this is so. Had the others fabricated the resurrection account, these statements would only have solidified the unbelief of those who initially objected to the resurrection story and would not have helped their own case.

Another fact that is striking is that the resurrected Jesus, so far as the narratives are concerned, never appeared to his enemies or opponents. All his appearances were to his followers, those who already believed in him. If the Gospel accounts were fabricated centuries after the life of Christ and the time of the apostles, as some try to argue, why would the writers not construct a more “plausible” account, with Christ appearing to all those who crucified him—appearing, as it were, in an “I-told-you-so” role to Caiaphas, Annas, Pilate, Herod, and others?

Still another instance is recorded in John 20, where we read of Mary Magdalene lamenting over Jesus’ missing body. As she stood weeping, not recognizing her Master, the apostle records, “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher)” (John 20:16). Jesus uttered one simple word—“Mary.” The moment he spoke her name, the same familiar tone opened her eyes to who he was. “Rabonni!” And then she clung to him. The writer provides for us the account of a woman who loved her Master, and of Jesus who cared deeply for one of his followers. John paints a picture that forces the reader to confront reality, describing the poignant moments of life, with Jesus and Mary as they actually were. It is hard to imagine an unknown author centuries removed from the incident who could have captured the humanness of the situation in the way the apostle did.

Circumstantial Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ

Here are some other facts relevant when examining the case for the resurrection of Christ Jesus. The resurrection of Christ, as mentioned earlier, was the one doctrine upon which apostolic preaching rested. The apostles were firmly convinced of this reality. Why would they use this as the cornerstone of their testimony if they were not convinced it was true? What would cause these followers to place so much faith and confidence in the resurrection of their Master, after they saw he died?

But more than this, the apostles laid down their lives for this doctrine. These men were wholly convinced what they were saying was true. Following the crucifixion of Jesus, the apostles fled and hid themselves from the authorities, fearing for their own safety—one even going so far as to deny Jesus repeatedly in public, as was the case with Peter. Yet, after only a matter of days, they began unabashedly to proclaim Jesus and his resurrection and, rather than recant under pressure, ultimately chose death instead. Of course, one dying for a cause does not prove its truthfulness. One of the better known examples of fanaticism that we have all heard about is the tragic events that transpired in Jonestown, the name of the religious community that attempted to create a utopia in Guyana in the late 1970s. After a United States Congressman was assassinated by several of the religious followers, more than 900 men, women, and children committed suicide, ingesting punch laced with potassium cyanide. They died for error they firmly believed was true. By contrast, in the case of the apostles, they would have known whether they had seen the risen Jesus or not. They would not have merely died for error, though, but would be dying for a known lie. This incredible conclusion is almost too fantastic to ask anyone to accept.

Another problem for the skeptic is that if Jesus had not risen from the dead, there would have been evidence to corroborate this disbelief. The apostles’ enemies would have been able to produce evidence to the contrary. Jesus reportedly appeared to more than 500 people, and there is no evidence any one of those 500 ever contradicted the account—an account that would have been widespread while the apostles and the eyewitnesses were still alive and preaching.

Another known fact is the changing of the day of rest. The early church, one populated primarily by Jews, assembled on the first day of the week and not on the last as is and was customary. The holy day, a day that Jews commemorated their entire lives, was changed inexplicably, if not for the resurrection. If something as integral as keeping the Sabbath holy (Saturday) was part and parcel of Jewish life, there must have been compelling reasons for the radical change. And, of course, the apostles gave the reason that what occurred on the first day of the week was the resurrection of Jesus—a fact that remains the only reasonable explanation one could muster for the change of worship. 

More Evidence that Demands a Verdict

The observed and recorded facts in the case for the resurrection prove to the unprejudiced observer that Jesus rose from the dead, and any true science must accept this conclusion as valid. The evidence is ample and detailed for anyone who wishes to investigate with an open mind. While compelling substantiation can and has been brought forward in support of the resurrection, the Christian should understand, above all, that Jesus’ ability to conquer death demonstrates his sovereignty even over the grave, vindicating him as righteous (John 16:10), and signifying his divine status (Rom. 1:4). Above all, though, his resurrection guarantees that he is Lord and Savior, able to save to the uttermost (Heb. 7:24–25).

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