There is an abundance of evidence to support Jesus’ resurrection. Many good resources are available on the subject. However, there are also a number of alternative theories that try to explain the absence of Jesus’ body from his tomb. They include the “stolen-body theory,” “the relocated body theory,” “the hallucination theory,” “the spiritual resurrection theory,” and others. Each of these theories attempts to explain facts about which there is little debate. The question is not whether those facts are true, but which theory best explains them. We will consider three of those facts.
The evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans is considerable:
All four Gospels report Jesus’ death.
The nature of crucifixion virtually guaranteed death. Crucifixion had been methodically developed by the Romans to cause maximal pain over the longest possible time. Given Jesus’ brutal whipping, the crown of thorns, the crossbar burden, and his being affixed to the cross with nails or spikes, it is virtually certain he was dead.
The spear thrust into Jesus’ side, reported in the book of John, caused water and blood to flow out, which is medical evidence that Jesus died. Many physicians have agreed that the release of blood and water from such a spear wound is a sure sign of death.
Extrabiblical writers record the death of Jesus. These include Cornelius Tacitus (about AD 55–120), who is considered by many to be the greatest ancient Roman historian; the Jewish scholar Josephus (about AD 37–97); and the Jewish Talmud (compiled from about AD 70–200).
Fact 2: The Tomb of Jesus Was Empty
On Sunday after the crucifixion, Mary and the other women went to anoint the body of Jesus. To their surprise, the tomb was open and the body was gone. There is good reason to believe the tomb was actually empty as the women reported:
The disciples of Jesus did not go off to Egypt or China to preach the resurrection of Christ; they went right back to the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified. Had the tomb of Jesus been occupied, they could not have maintained the resurrection for a moment.
You can be sure that if Jesus’ body hadn’t been resurrected, the religious and political leaders of the day would have quickly and effectively quashed the rising sect of Christianity by locating the corpse and wheeling it through the streets of Jerusalem. This would have destroyed Christianity practically before it started. But this never happened, because Jesus had bodily risen from the dead.
One of the most compelling evidences supporting the empty tomb story is this: It reports that women first discovered the absence of Jesus’ body. In first-century Palestine, women had low status as citizens or legal witnesses. Except in rare circumstances, Jewish law precluded women from giving testimony in a court of law. So why would the disciples, if they were contriving the story, have reported women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb? Typically when people concoct a story to deceive others, they don’t invent information that discredits it. The fact that the disciples include women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb points to one thing—they were reporting the truth.
Fact 3: Jesus’ Disciples Sincerely Believed He Appeared to Them
Scholars agree that the early disciples sincerely believed that Jesus rose from the dead and personally appeared to them. A convincing line of evidence can be found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which is a short creed that records the death, burial, resurrection, and appearances of Jesus to Peter, James, the 12 disciples, a group of 500 believers, and finally to Paul.
Even though the book of 1 Corinthians was written around AD 55, scholars believe the short creed in chapter 15 predates the writing of the book itself. One reason is because at the beginning of the creed Paul says, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” (1 Corinthians 15:3 nasb). In other words, Paul is passing on to the Corinthian church what had previously been given to him. When did Paul receive the creed? Since Paul first visited Peter and James in Jerusalem three years after his conversion (Galatians 1:18-20), many critical scholars believe that Paul received the creed from them on this initial encounter. This would date it to within five years after the death of Jesus. Historically speaking, this is remarkably early evidence for belief in the death, burial, and appearances of Jesus.
Examine all the alternative theories, and only one conclusion takes into account all the facts and does not adjust them to preconceived notions. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is a historical event caused by a supernatural act of God.
This chapter originally appeared in 77 FAQs About God and the Bible by Sean McDowell and Josh McDowell (2012). Used by permission from Harvest House Publishers.