When I say Christianity is true, I’m not merely saying it’s meaningful to me personally, I’m saying it accurately represents the truth about reality. And there’s nothing more central to Christianity than the idea that Jesus died on the cross, removing the guilt that separated us from our perfect God by taking the punishment we deserved on Himself, and was resurrected, restoring us to a joyful relationship with God who is the very standard of goodness, truth, and beauty.
No resurrection, no Christianity.
Where does this leave the truth seeker? Fortunately, though miracles have a supernatural cause, the evidence of the effect is available for our scrutiny just as the evidence for any historical event is available to us, and so I offer this brief outline of an argument:
1. The disciples and early Christians believed in an actual, physical resurrection, according to the first-century historical evidence.
(Please note that at this point, I’m only arguing for what the disciples believed, not for whether or not it’s true.) Consider what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14 (his first-century authorship is generally uncontested): “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Both the context of this passage and the Jewish concept of resurrection support the idea that Paul was referring to a bodily resurrection and not merely a “spiritual” one. (See also “Acts Points to a Physical Resurrection.”)
So the Christians considered the resurrection to be an actual, bodily event that was central to their faith. Indeed, as Paul asserts, without that resurrection there is no faith.
2. The resurrection was central to Christian teaching early on and was not a later addition.
There’s a pre-biblical creed recorded 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 according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now....
The technical phrase “for I delivered to you...what I also received,” along with the phrases “and that...and that...and that” indicate, according to the conventions of the time, that Paul is reciting a creed and this is not his original writing. This creed places the atonement and the resurrection at the center of the Christian faith and is not Pauline material. In fact, it can be traced back to within a few years of Jesus—probably to the ministry of Peter and James, who are mentioned specifically in the creed (James is mentioned in v. 7).
If the crucifixion happened in AD 33, Paul’s conversion happened in approximately AD 36–38. Three years later (39–41), he went to Jerusalem and met with Peter and James (see Galatians 1:18–19), so it’s probable that when they discussed the gospel then, this creed was passed on to Paul. (The fact that Peter and James are mentioned specifically in the creed indicates it probably came from their area.) Since the creed was already formulated when it was given to Paul, this means it dates back to earlier than AD 39–41. And of course, the beliefs that inspired the creed predate even the creed. Again, this time frame is accepted by critics and Christians alike. Some date the creed even earlier.
3. The disciples experienced something.
You must agree that the disciples experienced something. Whatever that something was, it changed them from a group of people who deserted Jesus and began to disperse after His death to bold proclaimers of His resurrection.
What happened to change their minds? They claimed it was seeing the resurrected Jesus. Were they trying to perpetrate a hoax? This is extremely unlikely, for nobody would go through torture and death (as most of them did) for something they knew to be a lie. So the disciples were convinced. Were they fooled by someone or something, or did Jesus actually rise from the dead?
4. Naturalistic explanations fail.
Different naturalistic explanations have been offered to explain the disciples’ experience. Those explanations have either been debunked or do not explain the evidence as adequately as does the resurrection. For example:
“Jesus faked His death (or fainted), and did not really die on the cross.” This theory is impossible since if a man were to only pretend to be dead on a cross, he would have to discontinue pushing himself up and down—the action enabling him to breathe. However, as soon as he did that, he would, of course, not be able to breathe and would be dead anyway.
“The disciples [or some other party] stole the body.” We are back now to the idea that the disciples sincerely believed the resurrection to be true, so it’s highly unlikely they stole the body. Additionally, had anyone else stolen the body (the Jews or the Romans), they (the body-stealers) could have easily produced a body and put an end to the unrest that was resulting from the birth of the church. This church had its start in Jerusalem where critics had a reason to stop it and the means by which to do so if any body still existed. They did not produce a body, and the church continued to grow.
The other contending naturalistic explanations likewise fail to sufficiently account for the available historical data (see here and here for responses to the hallucination hypothesis). Instead, the weight of the evidence lies with the resurrection, and rational people should always side with the weight of the evidence—even if they don’t like what they find there.
(For more information, see the work of Gary Habermas or this book by an Orthodox Jewish man who, though he has a different idea about the meaning of the resurrection, is convinced by the evidence it actually occurred in history.)