I don’t know what time it happened. The apostle John tells us that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb while it was still dark. The other three Gospel writers say that sunrise was at hand. Either way, it must have been dark outside when the eyes of the Savior first opened. It must have been very damp when he took his first breath. He may have sat up, neatly folded his burial cloth and linen wraps, then walked out of the tomb with authority and purpose.
What was he thinking as he departed? Was he thinking of his forty remaining days traveling the road to Emmaus, appearing to the women and disciples, giving the Great Commission, and ascending to heaven? Did he look the same, or did he emanate an otherworldly glow? Did he carry himself in the same way he did before his death, only this time with a confidence that his work was finished? We can only speculate.
The rest we know: the ensuing earthquake, the blinding light, the terrified guards, the rolling away of the stone, and the appearance of two robed men. But how often do we forget the gravity of what happened on Resurrection Day? How often do we attend early-morning church services and enjoy food and fellowship, never once stopping to envision the story from within the tomb? Let us never forget it. This is the moment that changed history, the moment that gave hope to a lost world. For if Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile and we are still in our sins.
This Resurrection Sunday, we’ve compiled our articles from the past two years on the evidence for the Resurrection into this single article. We hope you’re able to meditate on these truths, send them to those you know, and use them to strengthen your faith in a time when the world grows darker.
First, we will demonstrate that the main facts of the Resurrection story (as presented in the Gospels) are historically valid.
1A. Jesus of Nazareth died.
Jesus of Nazareth existed historically and was executed by Roman crucifixion. This can be independently confirmed by secular sources, without any references whatsoever to the four Gospels or the writings of the church fathers.
Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian (often called one of the greatest Roman historians), makes a definite reference to Jesus’ death and impact in the Annals: “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus [Jesus], 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 Pilatus…”1 Tacitus was a non-believer.
In a passage of the Antiquities of the Jews known as the Testimonium Flavianum, Josephus, a Romano-Jewish scholar and historian (37 – c. 100 AD), writes about Jesus: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” 2 Although references to Jesus being “the Christ” and his supposed Resurrection are considered by scholars to be later Christian interpolations, the general consensus is that, in the words of historian Edwin Yamauchi, “[The first] part of the passage – which talks about Jesus’ trial and crucifixion… – is unexceptional and considered genuine.”3
Jesus’ death is also described in the Jewish Talmud, compiled between 70 and 200 AD.4 Even Lucian of Samosata, a second-century satirist who mocked and ridiculed Christians, testifies to the historicity of Jesus’ death in his play The Death of Peregrinus: “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.”5
Even if Jesus had not suffered from hematidrosis, physical abuse, severe scourging, and the placement of a crown of thorns on his head (all of which are attested to in the Gospel narratives), he would have been dead by crucifixion alone. Roman soldiers in charge of execution were mandated to ensure the death of their victims on pain of death.6 The fact that the apostle John, a first-century fisherman, records a medically accurate description of pericardial rupture (the emission of water and blood) following the crucifixion (John 19:34-35) is excellent proof of the validity of Christ’s death.
In a 1986 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. William D. Edwards and his colleagues state categorically that “Jesus…was flogged, and was sentenced to death by crucifixion. The scourging produced deep stripelike lacerations and appreciable blood loss, and it probably set the stage for hypovolemic shock…death resulted primarily from hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia. Jesus’ death was ensured by the thrust of a soldier’s spear into his side. Modern medical interpretation of the historical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross.”7
1B. Jesus was buried.
The second indisputable fact is that Jesus was buried.
According to Mark 15:43, Jesus was buried in the prepared tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin. As the ruling council of Israel, the Sanhedrin was composed of seventy-one members or less at any given time. To invent a fictional member of this small body in a historical biopic would be similar to fabricating the name of a United States senator (who could easily be cross-checked with public records) in a history book. Given the early nature of Mark’s Gospel and the public nature of the Sanhedrin, it would have been impossible for Mark to fake the story without being called out for it. The name of Joseph, his prominent position, and the location of the tomb would have made it very easy for someone to check if these events occurred.
Furthermore, given Christian resentment toward the Jewish authorities for crucifying Jesus, it would have been highly unlikely for a Christian author to concoct a story about an honorable member of the Sanhedrin giving Jesus a proper burial. And given that the Gospel of Mark is widely considered to be the earliest Gospel and is based off of the apostle Peter’s eyewitness testimony (according to Eusebius),8 it is hard to doubt the scenario of burial in a tomb.
A second proof of Jesus’ burial is the early Christian creed that Paul delivers in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5: “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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”
According to philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig, “vv. 3-5 are a highly stylized four-line formula filled with non-Pauline characteristics.”9 Thus, most scholars date this creed to 36 AD, during Paul’s visit to Jerusalem. That visit is described in his letter to the Galatians, which all New Testament scholars, including well-known atheist skeptic Bart Ehrman, attribute to the historical Paul.10 The creed, then, was created within five years of Jesus’ crucifixion (no room for legend to develop) and testifies to his burial after death.
1C. Jesus’ tomb was found empty.
Finally, virtually all serious scholars agree that Jesus’ tomb was later found empty. A story of the disciples stealing the body (perpetuated in later anti-Christian documents) would not have been necessary if the body or bones of Jesus had been found.
The original Resurrection accounts in the Gospels also yield much implicit evidence. First, these accounts are written in very realistic and non-fantastical literary styles, unlike later non-canonical “Gospels” that describe bizarre Resurrection stories.
Second, according to the Gospel accounts, it was Jesus’ female followers who discovered the empty tomb. In ancient Jewish culture, women were not considered credible witnesses. According to Josephus, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex” (Antiquities of the Jews 4.8.15).11 If the Gospels had been edited for credibility, surely the men would have been the ones to discover the tomb. But it is not so in any of the accounts.
Finally, the twelve disciples initially distrusted the account of the female witnesses (Luke 24:10-11). This embarrassing fact could have easily been omitted, but it was not. The disciples were also cowardly, hiding in an upper room (Mark 16:14, John 20:19) and later doubting the validity of the Resurrection itself (John 20:24-29). If this account were fictional, surely the disciples, the future leaders of the church, would not have been portrayed in such a negative light.
1D. Conclusions So Far
The facts are now clear: it can be shown historically that Jesus died, was buried in the prepared tomb of a prominent member of the Sanhedrin, and was later missing from his tomb. At least these essential facts can be trusted. Christians hold that these facts can only be explained by the Resurrection (a supernatural event), but what if this is not the case? What if one of the many other posited theories works better? At this point, we must consider each one before drawing a conclusion.
2A. The Swoon Theory
According to the swoon theory, Jesus did not really die but merely swooned on the cross and revived in the tomb, later appearing to his disciples. This argument has been easily refuted by reputable scholars.12
Roman executioners were always charged, on pain of death, with ensuring the death of their victims. Jesus was verifiably stabbed with a spear that resulted in the collapse of his heart.13 He would have been wrapped according to Jewish burial customs, and if there was any life in him, it would have been extinguished immediately by the strong wrapping spices.
He was also buried in a cave-like tomb, as established in Point 1B. Bishop E. LeCamus of La Rochelle, France, said that “a man in a swoon is not revived ordinarily by being shut up in a cave, but by being brought out into the open air. The strong odour of aromatics in a place hermetically sealed would have killed a sick person whose brain was already seized with the most unyielding swoon.”
There is no possible way that a resuscitated Jesus could have walked many miles on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) with a spear wound to his side. There is no possible way that he could have appeared to the twelve disciples and more than five hundred people (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) while giving them the illusion that he had physically resurrected.
Most importantly, a resuscitated Jesus would have been an uninspiring Messiah. In the words of German theologian David Strauss, “It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment…and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life…”14 In other words, even if Jesus had swooned, he would have been such a pitiful sight when presenting himself to the disciples that they would have never started a religion based on him.
2B. The Stolen Body Theory
A second theory is that the disciples stole Jesus’ body and later claimed that he had risen from the dead. This theory is hardly novel. In fact, it appears in the Gospel of Matthew as a story fabricated by the high priests to explain the empty tomb (Matthew 27:62-66, 28:11-15).
There are two common arguments against the stolen body theory. The first is that guards at the tomb would never have allowed such a theft to occur, and the second is that the disciples, most of whom were later martyred in horrific ways, would not have died for a fabricated story of their own making.
While these are compelling arguments, they are useless in the minds of most skeptics. In a 1984 paper, William Lane Craig says that “Matthew’s account [about guards at the tomb] has been nearly universally rejected as an apologetic legend by the critics,” a legend designed to make the stealing of the body seem impossible and to explain the origins of the stolen body theory.15 Regarding the second rebuttal, skeptics contend that the accounts of the disciples’ martyrdoms come from the Apocryphal Acts and are highly unreliable church traditions written to validate Christianity. Also, the fact that people die for their beliefs does not necessarily validate those beliefs.
Perhaps a different approach would work better. Imagine, for a moment, that Jesus was laid in a tomb, and that this tomb was not guarded. Imagine that the disciples were never martyred but instead died peaceful deaths. Even if these things were true, the disciples were all Jewish men who were aware of Deuteronomy 21:23: “a hanged man is cursed by God.” Would these men (who believed in the coming judgment) have faked the Resurrection and initiated the worship of a man who may have been cursed by God, thus incurring the wrath of God upon themselves? What possible gain would be worth such consequences?
2C. The Hallucination Theory
Another theory is that the twelve disciples hallucinated Jesus’ appearances. There are many reasons why this theory does not work.
According to the oral formula and subsequent verses in 1 Corinthians 15:3-9 (reviewed in Point 1B), Paul claims that more than five hundred people saw Jesus at the same time. He then states that many of them are still alive as he writes, as if to invite skeptics to question these witnesses. Given that Paul was a major player in the early church and had many enemies who could have used these so-called witnesses to bring him down, this is an audacious claim. To say that three people, let alone five hundred, hallucinated about the same person at the same time is ridiculous from a medical and psychological perspective.
Furthermore, in the incredibly authentic account of Luke 24:36-43, the disciples are portrayed as consistently doubting, even when Jesus appears in front of them! In fact, it is not until he eats a fish that they believe. Therefore, they had no predisposition to believe and probably would not have been tricked by a hallucination.
Clinical psychologist Gary A. Sibcy commented, “I have surveyed the professional literature (peer-reviewed journal articles and books) written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other relevant healthcare professionals during the past two decades and have yet to find a single documented case of a group hallucination, that is, an event for which more than one person purportedly shared in a visual or other sensory perception where there was clearly no external referent.”16
And, most critics forget that, as C.S. Lewis astutely observes, a hallucination would explain only the post-Resurrection appearances.17 It would not explain the empty tomb, the rolled-away stone, or the inability to produce the corpse.
2D. The Legend Theory
Scholars often fault C.S. Lewis’ trilemma argument (Liar, Lunatic, or Lord) for omitting the possibility of “Legend”. Indeed, according to historian Michael Licona in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, “[Bart] Ehrman complains that all of the canonical Gospels were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus and that Jesus does not appear in any non-canonical pagan source until 80 years after his death.”
But Licona goes on to say: “when compared with written sources of other historical figures and events, thirty-five sixty-five years is a relatively short period…The Roman emperor Tiberius was a contemporary of Jesus. The number of non-Christian sources who mention Tiberius within 150 years of his life is equal to the number of non-Christian sources who mention Jesus within 150 years of his life. If we add Christian sources, the Jesus:Tiberius ratio goes from 9:9 to at least 42:10.”18 This subject will be given extended treatment in future articles, but suffice it to say that there is historically solid extra-Biblical evidence for the life and ministry Jesus.
2E. The Twin Theory
The twin theory argues that Jesus had a twin brother who impersonated him after his death and appeared to the disciples, convincing them that he was the risen Lord. This is absurd because it assumes that the disciples (and the other witnesses mentioned by Paul) were so naïve that they could not tell a man apart from his twin.
A twin would not have the same voice, gait, psychological makeup, or form of speech, and remember that the disciples had lived with Jesus for three years; they ate together, slept in the same places, and walked and learned together. Would you mistake your best friend for his twin?
How was it that this twin was never seen before around Nazareth, a very small town? Where did he get nail prints in his hands and feet (John 20:27)? If he were secluded from society, how is it that he knew enough about Jesus and his doctrine to impersonate him? This theory makes little sense and defies Occam’s razor, which states that the simplest explanation is often the correct one.
2F. Conclusions So Far
Other loose ends are tied up quite easily. Those who say that Jesus could have never been raised from the dead because he would have been consumed by maggots are attacking a straw man argument. Christians believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and thus the supernatural aspect of the Resurrection means that the laws of nature do not necessarily apply (though in this case, they almost always do and correlate with historical attestation). Philosopher David Hume argues that any natural explanation is better than attributing an event to miracle, but in this case, any other explanation is less trustworthy than the supernatural explanation.
More than two thousand years ago, something happened to change the course of time. We have already proven through historical analysis that the facts of this story can be generally trusted. And we have just demonstrated, to a reasonable degree of certainty, that the only possible explanation for these facts is that Jesus indeed rose from the dead.
Now, we must resolve aspects of the Resurrection story in all four Gospel accounts that are often viewed as contradictions. From this, we see, once and for all, that the story of Easter is not a hoax, but an accurate retelling of the greatest miracle in human history. Christ is risen indeed!
3A. What time of day did the women go to the tomb?
Matthew 28:1: “Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week…”
Mark 16:1-2: “When the Sabbath was past…very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen…”
Luke 24:1 “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn…”
John 20:1: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.”
Explanation: All four Gospels agree that the women visited the tomb after the Sabbath and on the first day of the week, but Mark says it was after sunrise and John says it was before. Based on John 11:18, we may conclude that it took two miles for the women to journey from their home in Bethany to the burial site. The sun could have easily risen during their walk to the tomb, explaining why John mentions the “still dark” period (when they started their journey) and Mark refers to a period after sunrise (when they arrived).
3B. How many women went to the tomb?
Matthew 28:1: “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.”
Mark 16:1: “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.”
Luke 23:55: “The women who had come with him from Galilee…”; 24:10: “Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles…”
John 20:1: Only Mary Magdalene is mentioned.
Explanation: None of the Gospels say that only the women mentioned in that account were present. The Gospel writers are merely focusing on certain people in their individual narratives. Imagine if I said, “Scott, Joe, and Adam went with me to the cafeteria,” and my friend Jesse said, “I went to the cafeteria with Vinh, Scott, and Jake.” We would both be right; I merely omitted Jake, and Jesse omitted Joe and Adam from the narrative.
3C. Was the tomb already open?
Matthew 28:2-4: “And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.”
Mark 16:4: “And looking, they saw that the stone had been rolled back – it was very large.”
Luke 24:2-3: “And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.”
John 20:1: The stone is already rolled away from the tomb.
Explanation: Mark, Luke, and John record that the women all see the stone rolled away from the tomb. Matthew merely gives the explanation for what caused the stone to be rolled away; he is not saying that the earthquake occurred as the women were approaching the tomb.
3D. How many angels were present?
Matthew 28:5-7: One angel rolls back the stone and sits on it. He commands the women to tell the disciples that Jesus has risen and is going before them to Galilee.
Mark 16:5-7: Upon entering the tomb, the women see a young man dressed in white. He commands the women to tell the disciples that Jesus has risen and is going before them to Galilee (in language very similar to that of Matthew’s account).
Luke 24:4-7: Two men in dazzling apparel stand before the women and tell them that Jesus is risen. They remind the women that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection.
John: No angel is mentioned.
Explanation: There were two angels, both dressed in white dazzling apparel. Matthew and Mark merely focus on the main spokesperson for the two. No one is mentioned in John’s account because Mary Magdalene may have left early to tell Peter and John about the empty tomb before the rest of the women encountered the angels.
3E. Did the women tell the disciples, and what was their emotional state?
Matthew 28:8: “So they [the women] departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”
Mark 16:8: “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Luke 24:8-9: “And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest.”
John 20:2: So she [Mary Magdalene] ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’”
Explanation: The Gospel of Mark ends abruptly with this verse, so it is possible that the women were too afraid to speak at first. But then, as Matthew and Luke describe, they worked up their courage and told the disciples. Before all of this, Mary Magdalene, as mentioned above, had already departed and told Peter and John, and the three of them came back to the empty tomb.
3F. Final Conclusions
The fact that the Gospels do not perfectly align on every detail demonstrates that the Gospel writers did not merely get together and craft a single narrative that they could all copy down later. Eyewitness accounts are often divergent on the focus of individual details, but they rarely contradict each other in substantial content. Note that there are no contradictions between the Gospel accounts, and any apparent contradictions are easily reconciled.
In conclusion, take a look at perhaps one of my favorite arguments for the truth of the Resurrection: “I still can’t help wondering how we can explain away what to me is the greatest miracle of all and which is recorded in history. No one denies there was such a man, that he lived and that he was put to death by crucifixion. Where…is the miracle I spoke of? Well consider this and let your imagination translate the story into our own time – possibly to your own home town. A young man whose father is a carpenter grows up working in his father’ shop. One day he puts down his tools and walks out of his father’s shop. He starts preaching on street corners and in the nearby countryside, walking from place to place, preaching all the while, even though he is not an ordained minister. He never gets farther than an area perhaps 100 miles wide at the most. He does this for three years. Then he is arrested, tried and convicted. There is no court of appeal, so he is executed at age 33 along with two common thieves. Those in charge of his execution roll dice to see who gets his clothing – the only possessions he has. His family cannot afford a burial place for him so he is interred in a borrowed tomb. End of story? No, this uneducated, property-less young man has, for 2,000 years, had a greater effect on the world than all the rulers, kings, emperors; all the conquerors, generals and admirals, all the scholars, scientists and philosophers who have ever lived – all of them put together. How do we explain that – unless He really was what He said He was?”19
 Tacitus, Annals 15.44, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3, translated by William Whiston  Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998. Print.  Babylonian Sanhedrin 43a-b – “on the eve of Passover they hanged Jesus the Nazarene” (Editions or MSs: Herzog 1, Karlsruhe 2)  Lucian, The Death of Peregrine 11-13, translated by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler in The Works of Lucian of Samosata (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), vol. 4, as quoted and cited by Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (College Press, 1996, 2008).  Persaud, Christopher H.K. Contending for the Faith: 22 Methodical Arguments for Biblical Truth. N.p.: Xlibris, 2013. Print.  Edwards, William D. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” Jama 255.11 (1986): 1455. Web.  “Again, in the same books, Clement gives the tradition of the earliest presbyters, as to the order of the Gospels, in the following manner: ‘The Gospels containing the genealogies, he says, were written first. The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it. But, last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.’ This is the account of Clement.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.5-7, translations from The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers; Second Series; Volume 1)  Craig, William Lane. ‘The Resurrection of Jesus.’ Reasonable Faith. Reasonable Faith, n.d. Web.  a) “Most scholars, however, agree that Paul actually wrote only eight of the thirteen ‘Pauline’ letters now included in the New Testament collection: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.” (“Who Wrote Paul?” The Jesus History Project. N.p., n.d. Web.)
b) “‘Virtually all scholars agree that seven of the Pauline letters are authentic: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon,’ says Ehrman.” (“Bart D Ehrman: Was the New Testament Written by Those It Is Attributed To?” Examiner.com. N.p., 28 Feb. 2012. Web.) Translation by William Whiston.  Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998. Print.  Edwards, William D. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” Jama 255.11 (1986): 1455. Web.  Strauss, David Friedrich. The Life of Jesus for the People. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. London: Williams and Norgate, 1879. Print.  Craig, William Lane. “The Guard at the Tomb.” New Testament Studies 30.02 (1984): 273. Web.  Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. Print.  Lewis, C. S. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York: Macmillan, 1947. Print.  Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. Print.  Kossi, Abalo. In Lumine Tuo: Why Believe in God? Pittsford: Bookseller Castle Rock, 2010. Print.