It will take only one thing to destroy Christianity completely. One thing will render the Christian faith worthless. One thing will make your hope in Christ vain. One thing will make Christians the objects of scorn and contempt—and with good reason.
If the most bizarre thing Christians believe turns out to be false—if a brutally crucified man didn’t walk from his tomb, if Jesus never rose from the dead—then, Paul conceded, Christianity will be finished, and we of all people are “most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).
If Jesus rose from the dead, then everything critical to Christianity is true. If Jesus stayed dead, everything uniquely important about Christianity is false. It’s all or nothing.
But is it true? Do we have good reason to trust in the resurrection? I’ll give you three evidences—firmly rooted in history—that make the case, along with questions (in italics) you can use to maneuver tactically in conversations this Easter on this issue.
First things first, though: What is the minimum we’d have to show to verify a resurrection? Well, it seems we’d only need to show that a person was truly dead at one point in time and then was truly alive at a later point in time. Would that do it? If not, why not? Our strategy will focus on those two points. This is where history helps out.
Only three essential facts are needed to make our case that Jesus died then rose. Here they are: 1) Jesus was dead and buried. 2) The tomb was empty. 3) The disciples were transformed. That’s all. Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated.
Note two critical details about these facts. First, each piece of evidence is about something completely earthly. Nothing supernatural, only natural—a corpse, an empty tomb, and apparent personal encounters of some sort changing doubters into believers.
Second, though most New Testament scholars do not think Jesus rose from the dead (there’s a split decision on that question), on the main they affirm all three minimal facts. The critics side with us on the essentials, confirming that the basic evidences themselves are historically reliable. Let’s look at them one by one.
Jesus was dead and buried. There is no academic dispute on this point. After brutally beating and flogging Jesus, battle-seasoned Roman soldiers executed Him on a cross and declared Him dead, plunging a spear through His chest for good measure. He was then embalmed with 80 pounds of spices, wrapped up, and sealed in a stone tomb.
So, based on the record, is it reasonable to conclude Jesus survived that ordeal? If not, the first piece of the resurrection puzzle is in place: Jesus was dead. Now on to our second piece: Was Jesus alive at a later time? The last two facts address this concern.
The tomb was empty Sunday morning. Nearly three-quarters of all scholars agree here, since the empty tomb was never disputed by anyone at the time, even the Jews and Romans. Why was Jesus’ body never produced to quell the rumor of resurrection? Present the corpse, end the controversy. Pretty simple.
Here’s the question: Where was the body? Stolen? By whom? The Jews wanted Jesus dead. So did the Romans. That leaves the disciples. But why would they carry off Jesus’ corpse? And how would they get past the guard? The record shows they did not expect a resurrection anyway, and some resisted the claim when they heard of it. Plus, the disciples had nothing to gain by lying except being beaten, whipped, stoned, crucified, or beheaded. This is why virtually all historians today reject this option.
The disciples were transformed. Even the most critical scholars acknowledge that the disciples proclaimed the resurrection at their peril because they thought they’d encountered the risen Christ. Many paid the ultimate price—including the skeptic James and the former executioner of Christians, Paul—choosing death rather than retraction.
What did they all see? Whom did they meet with, walk with, even eat with? Some say they imagined—or hallucinated—the risen Christ. How? Different people, at different times, in different locations—individually and in groups—all imagining the same thing at the same time or having the same hallucination at the same time? Really?
Note that hallucinations, like dreams, are entirely private experiences. Others can’t join you in your sensory delusions. It doesn’t happen, especially over and over again with different groups of people. Something else was going on. What was it? And if, possibly, a hallucination or an imagining of some sort, what of the empty tomb?
Which brings us to our final, most important question: What single explanation makes sense of all of the historical details that virtually every academic in the field agrees on—the death of Jesus, the empty tomb, and the transformation of the disciples and the skeptics? What single interpretation accounts for all the facts?
Here it is, the answer Peter gives—the only answer that fits all the evidence: “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32). Those who disagree must solve this problem: “What is a better explanation of the facts?”
In the final analysis, the one thing that could destroy Christianity turns out to be the one thing that verifies everything important. Put simply, He is risen.