(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.
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
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
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
• 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
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.
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
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
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).