The resurrection of Jesus is the central part of Christianity. If Jesus had not resurrected from the dead, then our faith is useless, and we are still dead in our sins. It would mean we should all find something better to do with our time and energy. This is why it is so important that we know with confidence that the resurrection truly took place. And we need to be able to share the evidence for the resurrection with others, whether it is unbelievers to whom we are witnessing or to our children whom we are raising in the faith.
There’s a beautiful hymn that says, “He lives! Christ Jesus lives today! You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart.” That is true, but in the wrong order. We know He lives because of the evidence, and because of the evidence we believe in Him, and because we believe in Him, He lives in our hearts. We believe in Jesus because He proved He was the Son of God, because He was crucified, and because the tomb was empty three days later. How can we have confidence that Jesus really resurrected from the dead?
1) The women found the tomb empty. That early morning on the first day of the week, the women were returning to the tomb of their beloved Jesus to further prepare His body for burial. They even questioned how they would move that big stone away. But when they got there, they found the tomb empty! They encountered an angel who told them the good news - that Jesus is risen! They immediately ran back to tell the other disciples.
How can we believe they really found the tomb empty? Maybe they just went to the wrong tomb? Well, when the women announced the tomb was empty, Peter and John raced to see for themselves. They too found the tomb empty. So if the women went to the wrong tomb, then Peter and John went to the wrong tomb as well. It is not logical to think they all went to the wrong tomb. They would not have forgotten in three days where their beloved friend had been buried. Besides, if they had gone to the wrong tomb, once they announced Jesus had risen, the authorities would have wasted no time going to the correct tomb and showing them the body. So we know they weren't at the wrong tomb.
Granted, the accounts of what happened at the tomb is different across the four Gospels. In Matthew, two Marys see the tomb opened by an earthquake with an angel sitting on top of the stone. They meet Jesus on their way to announce it to the disciples. In Mark, the two Marys plus Salome find the tomb already open with an angel sitting inside. There’s no mention of their encounter with Jesus in the garden. Luke just says “women” went to the tomb to find it empty with two angels standing. He also doesn’t mention their encounter with Jesus. John says only one Mary goes to the tomb to find two angels sitting in the tomb. He mentions how he and Peter race to the tomb and that Mary encounters Jesus on her way to tell the others.
With these variations, does that mean the resurrection didn’t happen? Not at all. It means four people are giving their account of the same event. Though they include different lists of people, they agree women went to the tomb early in the morning. Though they describe differently how the tomb was opened, they agree the tomb was open and empty. Though they describe the angel differently, they agree there was an angel who announced Jesus had risen. Though they describe what happens as the women go to tell others differently, they agree the women were instructed to tell others and that they did.
What we find in these accounts is natural variations of different people observing the same event and recalling this same event from their own perspective, writing style, and recollection. This does not invalidate the event.
When I taught high school apologetics, I used the example of assigning them to write an essay about last weekend's high school football game. Each student would have different details based on their experience of the game, whether they were on the football team, a cheerleader, in the band, or just a spectator with a younger sibling. Their essays better have differences or I would know they had cheated. But they better agree on the essentials, like who won, the time of day, the location, the size of the crowd, etc., or I would know they had not actually been there. That is what we find in the variations of the Gospel accounts.
2) There is a drastic change in the disciples. When Jesus was arrested, the disciples all scattered. When He was crucified, only John was at the foot of the cross. When the women went to the tomb, they were hiding out in the upper room. They were understandably afraid of what the religious leaders would do to them. But after the resurrection, the disciples boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of God and that Jesus resurrected from the dead. They were no longer afraid to be called one of Jesus’ followers; they were now willing to be persecuted and killed for these claims.
But what if they made it all up? After all, people from other religions die for what they believe. We have to consider a very important thing about human nature. People will lie to get out of trouble, but they won’t lie to get into trouble. If the disciples made this up, it cost them everything – their families, their jobs, their homes, their safety, and their lives. People may die for something they think is the truth, but they will not die for something they know is a lie.
What if they stole the body and told everyone He resurrected? The religious leaders were very concerned that this might happen. That’s why they posted guards and sealed the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66). But when the soldiers came back and told them what happened, the religious leaders bribed them to lie and tell everyone the disciples had stolen the body. This could get the soldiers killed for not fulfilling their duties. So the religious leaders even promised to bribe the officials if they got in trouble.
But why bribe the soldiers if the body were still in the tomb? This confirms the tomb was empty. And for the reasons above we know it the disciples did not steal the body. They were too afraid to be seen at the trial of Jesus, so they’re certainly too afraid to overpower the Roman guards posted at the tomb in order to steal the body of Jesus so they can stage a resurrection they didn’t think was going to happen. Besides, whatever lie the religious leaders wanted to spread about the empty tomb, it couldn't explain the resurrection appearances.
3) Jesus appeared to multiple people on multiple occasions. The resurrected Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene at the tomb (Matthew 28:9-10), to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32), to the disciples in the upper room two separate times (Luke 24:33-43 and John 20:26-29), and to seven of the disciples while fishing at the Sea of Tiberias (John 21:1-23). The resurrected Jesus also appeared to 500 people at one time, to James (his brother), and to Paul on the road to Damascus (1 Corinthians 15:6-8).
These were clearly appearances of a resurrected Jesus because we know Jesus truly died on the cross (see The Death of Jesus for more on that). If He had not died on the cross, then these appearances would be of a beaten, bruised, and bloodied Jesus who somehow managed to unwrap the linen burial cloths, roll away the stone, and escape the grasp of the guards, all while in that kind of physical condition. When the disciples saw Him in that state, they would not have fallen at His feet in worship, they would have rushed to His aid.
So maybe these were these just hallucinations? Hallucinations do occur, but they will trigger only one sense at a time. So you may think you see something, or think you hear something, or think you feel something, but not all at the same time. With the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, He was walking, talking, touching, eating, and still working miracles (for the disciples to catch a boatload of fish).
Furthermore, the same hallucination will not occur for multiple people at the same time. As Paul said, there were more than 500 people seeing, touching, and hearing Jesus at one time. Besides, if these were hallucinations, the religious leaders would have simply gone to the tomb and retrieved the body to remind everyone that they had killed Jesus. But they didn’t do that because the tomb was empty.
4) There is evidence of the resurrection in the reactions of those who did not believe in Jesus. Before the resurrection, Jesus’ half-brothers did not believe He was the Son of God (John 7:5). Can you imagine growing up in the house alongside Jesus, knowing the circumstances of His birth, yet not believing He was God? After the resurrection though, His half-brother James became the founder of the church in Jerusalem, while His half-brother Jude authored the book by his name. James was later martyred for his faith in Jesus as God. The change all happens because they had seen the resurrected Jesus.
There is the drastic change in the life of Saul. He was present for the stoning of Stephen and was headed to Damascus to arrest and imprison others who followed this man Jesus who, in Saul’s mind, was destroying Judaism. After Saul encountered the resurrected Jesus, he completely changed his mission. He went from hunting down followers of Jesus to bringing new followers to Jesus. He went from being the persecutor to being the persecuted. He went from hating Gentiles to bringing the message of salvation to Gentiles. And this change cost him everything – his family, his job, his home, and eventually his life – but it gave him so much more – eternal life. Such a drastic change can only be explained by the resurrection of Jesus.
There is also the reaction of the religious leaders. No matter how hard they tried they could not stamp out the work that Jesus did, and they could not stop the spread of the name of Jesus. In Acts 3 when Peter and John healed the lame man in the name of Jesus, the religious leaders were furious. They arrested and beat Peter and John to intimidate them into silence. Here’s what happened:
The religious leaders could not deny that a miracle had taken place in the name of Jesus. And they could not prove to the disciples that Jesus had not resurrected - which is further confirmation the tomb was empty. And they could not deny the resurrection appearances. So they settled for beating Peter and John to get them to stop preaching the name of Jesus. But as we know, that would not work either.
There are also many extra-biblical writings that confirm Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Tacitus, a first-century Roman historian, wrote in his account of the burning of Rome by Nero:
“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.”
While Tacitus does not believe himself that the resurrection really happened, he does give evidence that the claim of the resurrection, this “mischievous superstition,” began in Judea and by the time of Nero, had spread to Rome. It tells us how quickly word spread about this man Jesus Christ who had been crucified under Pilate and who had resurrected.
There is sufficient evidence to know with confidence that Jesus resurrected from the dead. No alternate theory can explain the empty tomb or the resurrection appearances. This is why we follow Christianity. No other religion has a God who sacrificed Himself on your behalf and resurrected from the dead. No other religious leader would be willing to lay down his life for all people, even those who killed him. No other religious leader is even qualified to lay down his life on our behalf. Only Jesus could.
As Jesus said to Thomas, “You believed because you have seen Me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Though we cannot see His hands and touch His side, we have the testimony of those who did.
May you believe today, and by believing you may have life in His name. Because Jesus has risen, He has risen indeed!