Sunday 16th April 2017 is Easter Sunday, which is traditionally the time that many Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. A recent BBC survey highlighted that a quarter of Christians in the UK do not believe in the resurrection. Only 31% of Christians surveyed stated that they believe the Bible account word for word. Interestingly, 9% of non-religious people surveyed stated that they believed in the resurrection of Jesus in some form.
The resurrection is so central to the Christian message, that Paul writes:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:12-14)
Given the importance of the resurrection to Christianity, it’s reasonable to ask whether it is a rational belief. In their book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona present the following five reasons to believe in the resurrection:
1. Jesus was a real person who died on the cross
In addition to the four gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), several prominent historians refer to Jesus’ death. A good summary of this evidence is presented in The Guardian on Good Friday this year.
The first non Christian reference to Jesus comes from the Jewish historian Josephus:
When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified… (Josephus, Antiquities c. 93AD)
Likewise, the Roman historian Tacitus refers to Jesus’ execution when describing the persecution of Christians under 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 Pilatus. (Tacitus, Annals c. 115 AD)
As well as these historians, the Jewish Talmud refers to the crucifixion:
on the eve of the Passover Yeshu (Jesus) was hanged. (Jewish Talmud, c. late 2C AD)
These writers had no incentive to distort the truth as they were not Christians. Indeed, the writers of the Jewish Talmud perhaps had an incentive to ignore referring to Jesus’ death. Given the Jews’ involvement in Jesus’ crucifixion, it may have been more convenient to simply not refer to him. We can use these sources to reliably establish that Jesus existed and was put to death on the cross.
2. Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them
Jesus told his disciples that he would die and be raised from the dead. For example, Matthew 16:21 says
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
When it came to the night of Jesus’ arrest, the disciples fell asleep while they were supposed to keep watch (Matthew 26:36-46) and abandoned him after his arrest (Matthew 26:56). Peter famously denied Jesus three times (Luke 22:54-62). After Jesus’ resurrection, his disciple Thomas refused to believe, stating:
Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe. (John 20:25)
The book of Acts records the growth of the early church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven. Acts presents the disciples as brave men who were willing to risk their lives to spread the word about Jesus. In Acts 2:14-41, Peter boldly preaches to a crowd of thousands of Jews that Jesus died and rose again. There is evidence to suggest from early church writings (outside of the Bible) that many disciples were put to death for their beliefs, with Peter likely to have been crucified upside down in Rome, as Jesus had hinted at in John 21:18-19.
Why did the disciples turn from such timid, doubtful men, into such bold proclaimers of the gospel? If they didn’t truly believe in the resurrection, why would they have been willing to give up their lives? These men wholeheartedly believed that the Jesus who they knew, had died and rose again.
3. Paul was converted from a persecutor of Christians to one of the leading preachers of the 1st Century
The book of Acts introduces Saul as a man who “was ravaging the church” and an approver of the execution of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 8:1-3). In Acts 9, we read how he was converted to Christianity by receiving a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. He changes his name to Paul and becomes a key character in Acts, which details his missionary journeys around the Mediterranean.
Paul’s letters to various churches make up much of the New Testament. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul reflects on how his life changed following his conversion:
though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (Philippians 3:4-9)
If Paul wasn’t convinced that he had seen Jesus, why did he turn his back on his old life? Why would he have instead chosen to live such a tough life (see 2 Corinthians 11:24-29) in dedication to the gospel?
4. Jesus’ half brother James was converted from sceptic to disciple
Mary and Joseph had natural children after Jesus was born, which we learn from Matthew 13:55. However the gospels tell us that Jesus’ natural family didn’t believe that he was the son of God (John 7:5), to the extent that they even tried to seize him while he taught (Mark 3:21).
One of Jesus’ natural brothers was James, who is mentioned in Acts 15:12-21 and Galatians 1:19, where he is described as an apostle and the leader of the Jerusalem church. He is commonly believed to be the writer of the New Testament letter of James. He is also believed to have died for his faith, as referred to by Josephus, Hegeippis and Clement of Alexandria.
James had clearly been a sceptic growing up with Jesus, but had been transformed into a determined church leader. What had caused this turnaround? 1 Corinthians 15:7 states that after his resurrection, Jesus had appeared to James. This makes sense of James’ transformation, which would have been unlikely if Jesus hadn’t have been raised from the dead.
5. The empty tomb
Each of the gospels describe Jesus’ tomb as being empty after his resurrection. Matthew describes a coverup attempt made to explain the tomb being found empty:
While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. (Matthew 28:11-15)
The early Christian writers Justin Martyr and Tertullian also refer to Jewish claims that the disciples stole the body. There would have been no need to give this explanation if the tomb had not been found empty.
No one was ever able to produce Jesus’ corpse to prove that the body had been stolen. The tomb was protected by a heavy stone and a guard of soldiers, which the Pharisees had asked for (Matthew 27: 59-66). It would have been very unlikely that the disciples were able to get past these to steal the body.
Also, each of the gospels refer to a woman’s testimony of the empty tomb. In 1st Century Jewish culture, the testimony of women was not accepted or viewed as credible. It would have made little sense to make up a story where the tomb is first found empty by women. It is more likely that Jesus did indeed first appear to women and that this was not a fabricated story.
What does this all mean?
Many people have developed several alternative theories to make sense of these five statements. A detailed explanation of each of them is beyond the scope of this post, however they can often run into common problems (this graphic contains a good summary). For example, some have proposed that Jesus didn’t really die, which given the brutal method of crucifixion is highly unlikely. Others have proposed the disciples hallucinated. Each disciple would have needed to be concurrently under the same hallucination, which isn’t a typical pattern for grief hallucinations. This is therefore unlikely.
The simplest explanation of each of these statements is to accept that Jesus was raised from the dead. This is a rational and reasonable belief based on evidence.
So this Easter, let’s think again about what the celebration means. Why not open your Bible to find out more about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and what this means for you?