Easter Sunday and every Sunday call to mind that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. But how do we know that is true? Paul in his letter to the Corinthians tells us that our faith, our forgiveness, and our salvation is lost if Christ is not raised (15:12–19). So what evidence do we have to be sure Christ is raised from the dead?
To answer that question, let’s consider a few things from the New Testament, especially 1 Corinthians 15. First there are at least four historical evidences from outside of 1 Corinthians 15, and second there are at least three points of data from within 1 Corinthians 15. All of these evidences are based on the eye witness testimony Christ’s disciples—some who followed him in his life and others who were converted by his resurrection.
#1 — After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a marked tomb.
As the Gospels testify, Jesus’ burial was by an historical figure named Joseph, from Arimathea, who was a part of the Sanhedrin (see Matt. 27:57–61; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:50–56; John 19:38–42). The specifics of this testimony are great, too great in fact, to be a legend. For if Joseph of Arimathea was a fabrication, it would easily be disproven.
Moreover, the claim that Joseph touched a dead body on the Day of Passover (see Numbers 19:11–13) seems unthinkable, unless it really happened. No priest would defile himself with a dead man’s body on the day before Passover, unless he was convinced Jesus was the Christ. These details wouldn’t have been fabricated or believed, unless they were true.
Moreover, that Joseph buried Jesus in a marked tomb, which would have Roman soldiers stationed in front of it (Matthew 27:65–66), only confirms that the location of the tomb was known. Thus, setting up a second fact.
#2 — On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
In Israel’s patriarchal society, the testimony of women was not valued. Therefore, that Jesus’ resurrection is first reported by women was shocking (Matthew 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–10; John 20:1). Accordingly, it adds credibility to the story. If the apostles sought to write a false report, this fact feature of having women witnesses would not have been included in that day.
#3 — On multiple occasions, and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups saw Jesus alive after His death.
This is reported by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All Gospels record the eye-witness testimony to the resurrection of Christ. Paul adds to this list in 1 Corinthians 15:3–8, giving us six different sets of people who saw Jesus. (See more below).
#4 — The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe Jesus was risen from the dead, despite having every predisposition to the contrary.
That a group of Jews believed in the resurrection of one man, when their expectation was that of a national resurrection at the end of the age, only heightens the reality of Christ’s resurrection. Moreover, that these men and women believed in Christ even though he died as a sin-cursed man, crucified on a tree, further proves the reality of the resurrection.
Craig specifies this point further,
- Their leader was dead and Jewish messianic expectations did not expect a Messiah who, instead of triumphing over Israel’s enemies, would be shamefully executed by them as a criminal.
- According to OT law, Jesus’ execution exposed Him as a heretic, a man accursed by God.
- Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded anyone’s rising from the dead to glory and immortality before the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the world.
Thus, Christ’s resurrection is not just reported by those primed to believed. Rather, it is reported by those whose theology had to change dramatically, in order to believe Christ and Christ alone rose from the grave. This shift in theology can be witnessed in Martha’s discussion with Jesus in John 11. It supplies a background for Paul’s explanation of Jesus being the firstfruits of a common, eschatological resurrection.
#5 — The Old Testament bore witness to the resurrection of Messiah on the Third Day.
In particular, Paul could say that “in accordance with the Scriptures,” Jesus rose from the grave on the third day. As with the singular resurrection of Jesus and the need for a theological explanation, so too the resurrection on the “third day” gives biblical-theological reason supporting the point.
If the Lord was going to intervene and save his Messiah, it would make best sense to see him raised to life on the third day. This was the day God intervened and saved Isaac (Genesis 22:9); this was the day God ‘resurrected’ Jonah; this was they day God healed Hezekiah from his sickness (2 Kings 20:5–6); and this was the day Hosea foretold God would restore his people: “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up” (6:2).
Therefore, in the fullness of time, the New Testament Apostles, under the tutelage of the Spirit of Christ, could discern ways in which the Old Testament prophesied about Christ’s resurrection. And thus, while this mystery of Messiah’s death and resurrection was hidden to the Jews during the Old Testament, as the mystery of the gospel was revealed to Paul and the apostles it became evident how the Prophets anticipated and wrote beforehand about his resurrection (see Luke 24:44–49; 1 Peter 1:10–12). In particular, we can see how Peter applied Psalm 16 to Jesus resurrection on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:25–28).
#6 — The Apostolic evidence adds to the Prophetic words of the Old Testament.
In particular, Paul sites six groups of people in vv. 3–8 to whom Jesus appeared. Importantly, Paul doesn’t just list them to pad his stats. Rather, each of his stats have a story. Consider the impact Christ had on every group Paul mentions.
- Peter was the timid denier of Christ, who upon seeing the risen Christ is restored to fish for men. Throughout Acts we find him proclaiming the gospel, even within earshot of the place where he denied Jesus.
- The twelve are the ones who scattered when Jesus was crucified. They are the ones who locked themselves in the Upper Room—scared to death of what would happen next. Yet, what happened next can only be explained by Christ’s resurrection. With Holy Spirit power, they bore witness to Christ’s resurrection until many of them died for the message.
- The Five Hundred who saw Jesus at one time bears witness to the physical nature of Christ’s resurrection. The believers in Jesus did not have some mystical experience or hallucination. Rather, Jesus was seen and verified by a congregation larger than that in Corinth. Going further, Paul invites any doubter to seek out and listen to these witnesses, as many of them were still alive at the time Paul wrote to Corinth.
- Paul himself could bear witness to Christ’s resurrection and the change that such an encounter had. For instance, we find in Acts 9, 22, 26, Galatians 1 and 1 Timothy 1 testimonies of Paul’s conversion. Paul’s conversion from persecutor of the church to its greatest first-century missionary is one of the greatest evidences of Christ’s resurrection, as is the conversion of James.
- James, the half-brother of Jesus, also questioned and mocked his brother’s messianic claims. In John 7, we hear of him with his brothers inviting Jesus to go and prove himself in Jerusalem. Clearly, in Jesus earthly life, he didn’t believe. Yet, sometime later, sometime after his ignominious death James believed.
How could James and all of these witnesses believe, unless Jesus’ resurrection was true?
#7 — The final evidence is found in the church of Jesus Christ itself.
For 2000 years, ongoing evidence that Jesus is alive comes from the Church itself. To be sure, not every building with the title “Church” is genuine, but I would suggest the counterfeits confirm the reality of true churches. We live in a world where Satan loves to mock Christ and combat Christ by appending his name to institutions that have no affiliation with the risen Christ.
Still, in the midst of this, Christ is continuing to preserve, proclaim, and proliferate his church. For instance, that the church in China has exploded in grow since missionaries were kicked out of the country, proves that something other than man’s efforts are growing the church. That churches were packed in Egypt on Easter Sunday, one week after multiple bombs ripped through church building, speaks to the power Christ gives his suffering people.
In short, what explains the power of the church to multiply against military regimes and violent hatred? The answer, to quote my two year old is this: “Jesus is alive!!” And because he is alive, he is sending his Spirit and his Word to rescue his sheep and gather his flock. The Church of Jesus Christ continues to be built today, because the risen Christ is building it.
Something Even Greater Than Evidence: The Risen Christ Himself
Altogether, we have great reason to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. To be sure, it is not experimental and reproduceable evidence that confirms our faith. But we have the testimonies of countless men and women who saw the resurrected Christ. And we have the testimony of 2,000 years of the church, where the resurrected Christ has confronted his sheep with his Word and his Spirit, and has changed them just like Paul on the Damascus Road.
Indeed, this is the testimony that comes to each of us. And we must ask, “What do we do with the resurrection of Jesus Christ?” In truth, because of our spiritual deadness, we will not do anything with it, unless Christ opens our eyes to see his glory.
All the evidence in the world will not raise the dead to life, but praise be to God, our salvation does not depend upon dead evidence. It stands upon the risen Christ who is still raising the dead to life. For that reason we can pray, we can believe, and we can know that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. Why? Because Christ himself continues to speak to us like he did Lazarus, waking us from our tombs and uniting us to him through the gift of faith. Ultimately, this is the reason why we believe in Christ and his resurrection.
To God be the glory! Jesus is alive, risen and reigning at the right hand of God and calling us to faith in him.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds