Easter Evidence

(C) 1999 R.W.Wills


As Christians, we have some extra problems today communicating the gospel. Problems which didn’t exist in, say, the 19th century. Before we can persuade others to consider the message of the Bible, we have to first enable them to become familiar with it, and then convince them that it’s reliable.

How can we begin with someone who thinks there is no God, or who has despaired of knowing anything about Him? This is where “incarnation” comes in. We can know God, if He chooses to break through into our world and reveal Himself. Has he done this? As Christians, we believe that the answer is “yes”: He has done so in the form of a man, in the person of Jesus Christ.

How can we be sure of this? Jesus made claims of divine attributes and oneness with God, and His claims were authenticated by miracles of various kinds. At Easter, we concentrate on the greatest miracle of all; His rising back to life after He was killed. As believers, we love to read the accounts, imagine how it was and feed our faith. But in doing so it is possible to overlook how strong the evidence for this resurrection is, and how it could reveal Him to others if only we could bring it to their attention. Because we don’t feel a need to keep going over the evidence, we can almost forget that it’s there. It’s good sometimes to remind ourselves of the facts.

The Evidence

Paul shows the importance of the resurrection of Jesus to Christians in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. Verses 3 to 8 read:-

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also...

The early Christians were eager to present to those around them the evidence that Jesus really had overcome death. In this passage, Paul says that the resurrection of Christ is “of first importance” to the Christian faith, and then appeals to the vast number of eyewitnesses and hints that his readers can still consult some of them in person. Today, we also identify this resurrection as the foundation of our faith, but the evidence is more in the form of written records.

Many people (even some Christians?) have trouble believing that it really happened. It is an event completely outside our experience. Nothing like it ever happens in “everyday life”. It’s impossible to believe such a thing without very strong evidence; but the evidence is overwhelmingly strong that it actually happened!

For the moment, let’s try to overlook the fact that we believe God speaks to us through the Bible, and ask just how good the historical evidence of this resurrection is. To do this, we must be prepared to take the individual books of the Bible as separate documents, and ask what each one can show us. We will mainly be interested in the four Gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and some letters, mostly by Paul.

If we do this with an open mind, the first thing we realise is that, although the subject matter is miraculous, the documents constitute very high quality historical evidence. Only someone who believed that anything miraculous was completely impossible could reject this kind of evidence out of hand. The accounts are:
•    Written near in time to the events recorded.
•    Multiple (there are four accounts, plus the letters).
•    Different but not contradictory (independent).
•    Very detailed.

Near in Time

Many historical events (e.g. things done by Julius Caesar) are supported by documents written several centuries later. By contrast, most of the documents we are considering were in their final form within the first century. In the 18th century there were attempts to prove that the Gospels were written about 100 years after Jesus’ life, but this view is no longer tenable.

If there were a long interval between the events and the written accounts, it would be possible to suggest that there had been time for legends to grow up. Later accounts of legends could be more “miraculous” than earlier ones. We don’t find any such effect in the Gospels though. The earliest Gospel (written by Mark) has an account of the resurrection of Christ just as amazing as those in the other Gospels.

How early was the resurrection of Christ being announced? Some clues are in the passage we have read. This is a letter by Paul in which he is appealing to eyewitnesses. He isn’t saying “this is what I saw”, he’s saying “others saw this and you can ask them about it”.

Historians date Paul’s first letter to Corinth to about 52-57 AD, which is between 19-24 years after 33 AD when Jesus was crucified. This might still seem quite a long time, but note that Paul said, “... I passed on to you...”, indicating that this wasn’t the first time he had told the Corinthians about this. The first telling was probably verbal (unless there was an earlier letter which we don’t have), and must therefore have been about 50 AD. Paul also says “...what I also received...”, indicating that he had previously been told about the resurrection. This must have been some time before 50 AD.

When was this? Of course, as Christians we believe that this was the occasion recorded in the book of Acts, when Jesus met him on the road to Damascus, and he was told about the resurrection by the One who had achieved it! This must have been within a year of the event. But maybe we are assuming what we are trying to prove here! The next occasion we could point to, then, would be when he consulted with Peter, which he describes in Galatians 1:18. Historians believe that this meeting with Peter must have been about three years after his conversion, or four years after the resurrection of Christ. Later, Paul checked again with Peter that he had got his facts right on their first meeting, which he describes in Galatians 2:1-2.

So verbal accounts of the resurrection were in circulation within four years. But what about the Gospels themselves? The earliest Gospel written down was that of Mark. An Aramaic version is thought to have been in existence about 44 AD (11 years after 33 AD). Many people think that Mark included Peter’s eyewitness accounts in his Gospel, referring right back to the actual events.

Later, Luke, Matthew, John and Peter (in his letters) give more information. All except Luke were eyewitnesses. Their accounts do not overlap completely (and were therefore not “cooked up” together), but neither do they ever clearly contradict one another.

People sometimes object that all these documents were written by Christians for Christians, and are therefore biased. This is overlooking the purpose for which the Bible was assembled: it is simply the collection of writings thought to be relevant and reliable at the time.  However, Jesus is mentioned by a few other authors. One of the best examples is provided by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. He was not a Christian as far as we know, but in “Antiquities” book 18 chapter 3 he wrote:-

Now about this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it be lawful to call him a man. For he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of men who receive the truth with pleasure; and drew over to him many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the information of the leading men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at first did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold this and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

The summary is that we have independent and consistent written eyewitness accounts, and we know that the resurrection was being proclaimed within a few years of the crucifixion. Paul was initially very hostile but converted (how?) within one year. Paul discussed the resurrection of Christ with Peter within four years, and wrote about it to the Corinthians about 50 AD. There was no time for miraculous legends to develop, and there is no sign of the earlier accounts being less “miraculous” than the later ones. If we weren’t discussing an event completely outside human experience here, historians would have no trouble accepting this weight of evidence as proof.


If not legendary, could the accounts of Jesus rising back to life have been deliberately invented? Some say that the event is so fantastic it must have been invented, but there is then the problem of explaining exactly how the accounts came to be written down and widely believed. After all, there is no reason to suppose that people at the time were more gullible than we are today.

The “invention” theory doesn’t adequately explain any of the following facts:-

•    The number of different and complementary accounts we have. These writers never all met together at once, and had no opportunity to agree their story between themselves.

•    The many extra eyewitnesses referred to in the accounts. (Remember that Paul mentioned “more than 500 at one time”). These people would have known and pointed out any inaccuracies in the early accounts. Paul certainly wouldn’t have appealed to other witnesses if he had known the story was false.

•    The change which came over the disciples. They became courageous and turned the world upside down with their teaching. Christianity today exists because of them. They couldn’t have been so changed if they knew their message was a lie.

•    None of the disciples ever publicly recanted or mentioned any conspiracy, even though many of them suffered martyrdom.

•    Lastly, the accounts don’t “look” invented. They don’t describe such “obvious” scenes as the resurrection itself or Jesus confronting those who had condemned Him. They don’t explain how Jesus got into the locked upper room or why the two on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognise Him. They describe cowardice on Peter’s part (which wasn’t suppressed even though he became the leader of the early church), and Jesus appearing first to Mary Magdalene rather than someone “important” like Peter or John. They look, in fact, like untidy real life rather than tidy drama.

It seems that the “deliberate invention” theory is as difficult to maintain as the “legend” theory. Various ingenious ways around the problem have been proposed, adopting the assumption that the accounts are  mostly true but have a different (non-miraculous) explanation. However, all of these have difficulty explaining a crucial feature: the empty tomb.

The Empty Tomb

There is no way to dispute the fact that the Christian Church started in Jerusalem. It started with preaching that Jesus had been killed and had then come back to life. The only way this could happen in the very place where He had been entombed would be if the tomb was empty, and everyone knew it was. If the body had been there, the authorities could have destroyed the new movement (or at least driven it far from Jerusalem) by opening the tomb. The existence of Christianity today shows that they didn’t do this.  Why not?

One theory which has often been suggested is that the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb at night. We have already seen the problems of suggesting that the resurrection was a story deliberately invented by them. There are other difficulties too. For example, the tomb was guarded. (Remember, we are now assuming that the accounts are mostly true, but have a non-miraculous explanation). In Matthew 28:11-15 we read that it was necessary for the soldiers guarding the tomb to explain that they “fell asleep”. Apart from the fact that such an admission could have incurred a very serious penalty for a soldier, we have to ask why they were there at all. Surely most newly interred bodies weren’t guarded like this? The only reasonable explanation is that the reason given in Matthew 27:62-64 (that Jesus had predicted He would rise from the dead and this prediction might prompt the disciples to steal the body) was a true one. In other words, the tomb was guarded precisely because Jesus had said he would rise from the dead. Are we to assume that he really did make this claim, and today the Christian Church exists because it seemed to come true, but actually it didn’t happen? This seems to be treating the accounts very selectively!

Another suggestion is that the authorities removed the body. There seems to be no reason to suppose that they would have wanted to do this, but if they had, we are back to asking why they didn’t later produce it to crush the start of the disciples’ teaching in Jerusalem. Also, there doesn’t seem to have been time for them to do this. Part of the reason for Jesus to be hurriedly buried immediately after His crucifixion was so that no-one would have to handle the body the next day (the Sabbath). The body was found to be already gone, with the stone rolled away from the tomb, very early the following morning.

A third idea is that the tomb was never disturbed at all. This involves believing that the women went to the wrong tomb on the crucial morning. This seems inexplicable, because they are recorded as having been watching while it was sealed. It also does not account for any of the people or angels they are said to have met near the tomb. The suggestion has been made that they met a gardener who said (in the words of Mark 16:6), “You are looking for Jesus...”, (pointing to the wrong tomb)  “He is not here”, and then (pointing to the correct tomb), “See the place where they laid him”. But this is again being very selective: it involves leaving out only the words, “He is risen!” Finally, even if the women could have misunderstood in this way, we would have to assume that later on Peter, John, all the other disciples and all the authorities continued to repeat the same mistake.

Lastly, how about the idea that Jesus was not quite dead? He was placed in the tomb still alive, revived and escaped? This is leaving aside the difficulty that the Roman soldiers, experienced in these executions, had been asked by Pilate to make sure he was dead. But how could someone in such a condition have freed himself from the wrapping grave clothes, moved the stone and then escaped the guards outside? How could he the same day enter the locked upper room and give the disciples the impression that he had “conquered death”? They would have been aware of his true condition, and we are therefore back to the problems of deliberate invention on their part.

John gives a graphic account in chapter 20 (verses 3-8) of the discovery of the empty tomb by Peter and John. Notice how John (modestly called “the other disciple” in his own account) carefully states that he reached the tomb first, but allowed Peter to enter first and then followed him in. He is trying to make clear that neither of them had opportunity or motive to change anything, and no reason to doubt what they had seen:-

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.

Jesus Appears

After these events, we have descriptions of all the occasions when people saw Jesus alive, sometimes in very large groups. In the “upper room” he appeared to the apostles on two occasions; the second time he encouraged Thomas to inspect the marks of the nails in his hands. When they thought he was a ghost, he proved his solidity by eating fish. In Acts 1:4 we have an occasion “while he was eating with them”; it almost sounds ordinary! These are not reports of appearances seen by a few lone individuals who might be considered unbalanced. Remember Paul mentions “500 at one time”.

It has been objected that Jesus never actually said explicitly that he had really died and then come back to life. Given all the preceding evidence this objection doesn’t seem reasonable, but it turns out to be untrue as well. Here are the words of Jesus to John much later in his life, recorded by him in Revelation 1:17-18:-

“Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

What should this mean to us? If the resurrection really happened it does indeed authenticate all Jesus’ other claims: that He was God, come into the world to reveal Himself, dying for our sins, offering a fresh start, ascending to heaven to prepare a place for us in the presence of God. It provides the necessary foundation for the Christian faith. Believing this is important; otherwise we have missed God’s revelation of Himself to Mankind. Accepting it on a personal level is even more vital; we each need the forgiveness of sins which His death made possible, the freedom from fear and the hope of eternal life which His resurrection demonstrates.


Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version. The quotation of “Antiquities of the Jews” by Flavius Josephus is from the translation by A.R.Shilleto. Many of the ideas presented here are to be found in the book “Who Moved the Stone” by Frank Morison (Faber) and “The Evidence for the Resurrection” by J.N.D.Anderson (IVP).