The resurrection of Christ - what's the evidence?

At the heart of the Christian faith is a really quite staggering claim. It is the claim that Jesus Christ died, and that God raised him from the dead.

That claim needs to be seriously examined, because the whole of the Christian faith hangs upon whether it is true or not. The apostle Paul knew this, for he wrote the following:

...if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain... if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless...
(1 Corinthians 15:14,17a)

Paul is saying that if the resurrection of Christ never really happened, then the Christian faith is futile, pointless and empty. Paul even goes on to say that if Christ was not raised, then Christianity is not true and anyone who believes Jesus is alive really deserves to be pitied:

...if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless, you are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep [i.e. died] in Christ have perished. If we only have hope in Christ for this life, we are of all men most pitiable.
(1 Corinthians 15:17-19)

So what evidence is there for the resurrection of Christ?

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There's quite a lot of material on this page, so I've added links that will take you straight to each section (or you can just scroll down):

The gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Christ

Does it really matter whether Christ literally rose from the dead?

Can we trust what people 2,000 years ago had to say? Weren't people back then just rather gullible?

Objection 1: Jesus didn't really die on the cross

Objection 2: Jesus' disciples stole the body and then pretended he had risen

Objection 3: The disciples who saw the empty tomb had gone to the wrong tomb

Objection 4: Either the Romans or the Jewish authorities stole or moved the body

Objection 5: The people who thought they had met the risen Christ were hallucinating

Objection 6: All of your evidence that Christ rose from the dead comes from the Bible, which Christians wrote - so of course it says he is risen. Christians simply wrote up the story which they wanted to believe was true, and that doesn't make the story true


The gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Christ

The Bible gives us four accounts of Jesus' arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection. You can read them by following these links:
Matthew 26 onwards
Mark 14 onwards
Luke 22 onwards
John 18 onwards

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Does it really matter whether Christ literally rose from the dead?

Some people say that the important thing about Jesus is the teaching he gave and the moral example he left us with. That it doesn't really matter whether he actually rose from the dead, that what matters is whether he has 'risen in your heart'.

But, frankly, this is total nonsense. If Jesus never rose from the dead then what he said and taught was false, because he claimed he was going to do exactly this. Jesus death and resurrection was the central purpose of his mission, it was the reason he was born into this world, Jesus himself taught this. If Christ did not rise from death, then his teaching is either full of delusion or full of lies, and either way there is no room left for claiming that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Biblically faithful Christianity understands this. The crucial question is this: was the resurrection of Christ a real historical event? Because if it didn't really happen, then Christianity is not worth bothering with.

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Can we trust what people 2,000 years ago had to say? Weren't people back then just rather gullible?

Before we go any further, it's important to address the assumption sometimes made that people in Bible times were particularly gullible or stupid. This view asserts that people who lived 2,000 years ago must have been more inclined to believe implausible things, as they didn't know as much about our world as we do, and they didn't have the scientific understanding that we have.

It's certainly true that there have been great advances in our scientific understanding since then - just as it's also true that there are committed Christians in both academia and industry today who are scientifically highly qualified. But to suggest that people in Bible times were plain stupid, and disposed to believe things that can't possibly be true, is not correct.

It's true that medieval Europe went through a 'dark ages' of ignorance and superstition, but it's not insignificant that this also corresponds to a time when the truth of the Bible was securely locked away from people by deliberately only being made available in Latin, a language the common people did not understand, and the medieval 'church' (which was really not the true church at all, but rather a political power structure which committed all kinds of evils supposedly in God's name) played upon people's fears and ignorance as a means of controlling them. This so-called 'church' forbade the translation of the Bible into languages people could understand, and early translators who dared to translate the Bible into any common language of the day were often martyred for doing so.

In these dark ages, the 'church' would tell people 'nevermind reading the bible for yourself, you don't need to - all you need to know is that if you obey what we tell you, then you will go to heaven when you die - especially if you give your money to the church'. This was a means of keeping people subjugated, and the 'church' had a vested interest in feeding people's ignorance and superstition. The one thing this false 'church' did not want people to do was for them to read the Bible for themselves. That would have undermined their power over people.

Medieval ideas based upon ignorance and superstition do not come from the Bible. The Bible is not meant to be a science textbook, but when it does speak on any science related issue, it is actually consistent with what we know to be true from science.

Some people mistakenly assume that the Bible says somewhere that the earth is flat. The Bible does not say anywhere that the earth is flat! We know that the earth is a sphere, a planet in space that orbits the sun, it is not an object that rests on something else. In the book of Job, one of the oldest books of the Bible, we read this about God:

He stretches out the north over empty space, and hangs the earth upon nothing.
(Job 26:7)

Concerning the idea of someone being raised from the dead, people in Bible times were not stupid - they knew that dead people stayed dead, and that dead bodies would decompose, and in a hot climate this would happen quickly. In the account of Jesus raising Lazarus back to life, we read this:

Jesus, therefore again deeply moved, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone lay against it.

Jesus said, 'Take away the stone.'

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, 'Lord, by this time the body will have decayed; for he has been dead four days.'
(John 11:38-39)

Martha's response makes clear that she understood what happens to dead bodies just as well as we do. She wasn't stupid or gullible about this.

When people in Bible times believed that something was true, even though what they believed was contrary to the way things would ordinarily happen, this wasn't because they were stupid or gullible, or didn't understand how things ordinarily were. It was because they had a very good reason for thinking that in this instance something extraordinary had happened.

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Objection 1: Jesus didn't really die on the cross

Jesus' crucifixion was carried out by a squad of Roman soldiers, with a centurion present. Crucifixion was a punishment commonly used by the Romans (but only on people who were not Roman citizens - it was considered too terrible and shameful a punishment to inflict on a Roman).

These Roman soldiers knew what they were doing, they were experienced in putting people to death by crucifixion.

Before Jesus was nailed to a cross, he had been severely flogged. The Romans used a whip called a flagrum, which had pieces of bone and metal attached, intended to rip open the victims' flesh. The Romans would not release the body of a victim of crucifixion until they were sure the victim was dead. In Jesus' case, the soldiers saw that he was dead, and just to really make sure, one of them thrust a spear into his side. The Roman centurion then confirmed to Pilate that Jesus was dead, and Pilate then agreed to release the body.

The theory that Jesus didn't really die, but that he somehow recovered on the third day afterwards, is just not plausible. The problem with this theory, aside from the fact that the Romans made sure he was dead before releasing the body, is that it cannot account for his resurrection appearances. When Jesus began appearing to his followers on and after the third day, he was very much vibrantly alive. If he had not really died, at the least he would have been very seriously wounded. There is no way that Jesus would have appeared so manifestly alive and well if he had only been seriously wounded but not actually died. It would have taken a miracle for someone to be so seriously injured and then perfectly recover in just three days, three days sealed in a tomb, with no water, no food, no medical help. If you're going to believe that a miracle is the explanation for the resurrection appearances of Christ, it would make more sense to believe that he really died and that the resurrection really happened. That interpretation is consistent both with Jesus being very much alive and well three days afterwards, and with the fact that the Romans did not release his body until they were sure he was dead.

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Objection 2: Jesus' disciples stole the body and then pretended he had risen

There are a number of problems with this theory. First, the tomb was guarded by a squad of soldiers. If the disciples stole the body, they would have had to overpower the soldiers - unless the soldiers were all sleeping. Neither of these explanations makes sense. The squad of soldiers, unlike the disciples, would have been experienced and well armed fighting men. It's also not possible that the soldiers were all sleeping, as falling asleep on guard duty was a capital offence. None of the soldiers would have allowed this to happen, for fear of the punishment they would receive if they did.

If the disciples had somehow managed to overpower the soldiers (or found them all asleep), the second problem is that this turns the disciples into perpetrators of a massive hoax. The eleven remaining disciples, with the exception of John, along with many other followers of Jesus who claimed to have witnessed the resurrection, ultimately died for their faith rather than deny it. The early Church suffered intense persecution, first by the Jewish authorities, and then by the Romans. The disciples were so convinced that Jesus was alive and that he was indeed Lord and Christ that they chose to die rather than renounce their faith. They believed that the resurrection had really happened. They could not have believed that if they knew it was really a hoax.

The idea that the disciples stole the body is also just not consistent with what is revealed of their characters from the book of Acts and the New Testament letters. Read what they said and did, and how they lived, and what they believed about the difference between right and wrong, between righteousness and sin. It is just not consistent with what they taught and lived to suggest they were liars on a massive scale.

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Objection 3: The disciples who saw the empty tomb had gone to the wrong tomb

This explanation won't fly at all. Jesus' disciples did not base their belief that Christ was risen solely on the fact that the tomb was now empty. In fact, they only believed he was risen after the risen Jesus appeared to them. So even if they had gone to the wrong tomb, you still have to account for all those resurrection appearances.

But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the disciples' claim that Jesus was risen from the dead was based on no more than that they had gone to what they thought was his tomb, found it empty, and mistakenly thought he had been resurrected.

The moment the disciples started telling people, 'Jesus is risen!', the Jewish authorities, who had wanted Jesus dead, would have said, 'No he isn't - come and see the tomb, which is still sealed, with the body inside'. The tomb Christ was buried in had been guarded by a squad of soldiers and sealed with an imperial seal, so the authorities knew exactly where he was buried.

The gospel accounts tell us that the authorities guarded and sealed the tomb precisely to stop anyone stealing the body and claiming he was risen. So they knew which tomb it was. If the disciples had gone to the wrong tomb, the authorities, who did not want people believing Christ was risen, would have quickly pointed this out to everyone.

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Objection 4: Either the Romans or the Jewish authorities stole or moved the body

This theory doesn't make sense. The Jewish authorities wanted Jesus dead. They wanted to stamp out all belief in him and stop his followers from making any converts. They would not have done anything to facilitate people believing Jesus was risen. And if they had moved the body for some other reason, they would have produced it once his disciples started claiming Christ was risen, as this was exactly what the Jewish authorities did not want people believing. The Jewish authorities never did produce the body of Jesus to refute claims he had risen. Why not? Because they could not! After the resurrection there was no dead body, he really had risen.

As for the Romans, they didn't much care about what they saw as the Jews' own internal religious squabbles, but there were political reasons why Pilate needed to keep the Jewish authorities happy. Pilate's job, as far as his superiors in Rome were concerned, was to keep the Roman occupied territory he controlled compliant and trouble free. The Jewish leaders had said to Pilate about Jesus, 'This man has claimed to be the king of the Jews, we have no king but Caesar, if you let this man live you are no friend of Caesar'. Of course the Jewish leaders did not like being subject to Roman occupation for one moment, so their claim of being surrendered to Caesar is a cynical claim, but they said this to Pilate to manipulate him into killing Jesus for them. So Pilate knew the Jewish authorities wanted Jesus dead, and wanted to stamp out Jesus' following, and he went along with them as a means of attempting to keep them compliant. That's the reason he authorised a squad of soldiers to guard the tomb, and to seal the tomb. So Pilate would definitely not have stolen or moved the body.

There is another reason why the suggestion that the Romans or Jewish authorities stole or moved the body doesn't explain away claims that Jesus was risen. It's because the disciples' belief that Jesus was risen was not based upon the tomb being empty, but based upon Jesus himself having appeared to over 500 of them at various different times.

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Objection 5: The people who thought they had met the risen Christ were hallucinating.

The American Psychiatric Association publish a book called the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, currently in a transitional version of edition IV, and commonly referred to as DSM IV. This manual is widely known and referred to not just by psychiatrists in the USA, but also by psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals, in other parts of the world, including the UK. It presents diagnostic criteria for a range of mental disorders.

DSM IV, and the medical model of psychological malfunctioning on which it is based, is not without its diverse critics, although the reasons for that are too off-topic to get into here. My reason for flagging up DSM IV is in order to present what the psychiatric profession has to say about hallucinatory experiences.

Delusions and hallucinations are most often present within a range of psychotic disorders, or sometimes within other disorders having psychotic features. Delusions are defined as false beliefs, and might be non-bizarre delusions (e.g. possible but exaggerated beliefs such as 'I am being followed', when that is not so), or bizarre delusions (e.g. 'I am secretly an alien from another planet'). Hallucinations are defined as false perceptions, e.g. having an experience of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching something that is, to put it simply, 'not really there'.

Our brains are constantly receiving input from our senses, and our brains construct all of this information into what we perceive as the environment around us. Sometimes people say that an eye is like a camera, but this simile is misleading - our eyes do not actually 'see' anything, rather, our eyes detect wavelengths of light, our optic nerves send this information to our brains, and our brains put this information together in a way that we perceive as 'seeing'. It is with our brains that we 'see'. This description is true for all of our senses.

The point about this is that the psychiatric profession take the view that hallucinations involve something going wrong inside us with the 'data stream' of sensory information being sent to our brains, or with the way in which our brains then assemble that information into what we actually perceive. Hallucinations are internally generated, having no basis in what is actually going on in the outside world:

R.P. Bentall, Psychological Bulletin Vol 107(1), Jan 1990, 82-95:

"The available evidence suggests that hallucinations result from a failure of the metacognitive skills involved in discriminating between self-generated and external sources of information." - The illusion of reality: A review and integration of psychological research on hallucinations.

So hallucinations are entirely subjective experiences

Because hallucinations are entirely subjective experiences, it follows that it just isn't plausible to say that Jesus' disciples were all hallucinating when they thought they saw him after he had died. The reason is because their experiences of meeting the risen Jesus were shared experiences.

Whenever any random sample of people are together, it is always possible that one of them might be someone who experiences psychotic symptoms - but if that one person experienced an hallucination, and began talking to the 'person' whose 'appearance' was the result of the hallucination, the rest are likely to say (or to think), 'Who are you talking to? There's no one there!'

Even if you had a room full of people who are all suffering from psychotic disorders, and even if they were all hallucinating at the same time, they will each be having their own very individual experience, with no commonality between them, because each is having a totally subjective hallucination. They will all be seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching, something completely different, something which 'exists' only for each individual - because it's not 'really there'. If you asked them afterwards to each give an account of what had happened, you would get totally different answers from each person.

Jesus' resurrection appearances to his disciples, which were shared experiences, were qualitatively totally different from hallucinatory experiences.

The disciples were not hallucinating!

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Objection 6: All of your evidence that Christ rose from the dead comes from the Bible, which Christians wrote - so of course it says he is risen. Christians simply wrote up the story which they wanted to believe was true, and that doesn't make the story true.

The error in this objection is that it fails to recognise that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and other parts of the New Testament that refer to experiences of having met the risen Christ, such as the book of Acts, were either written directly by eye witnesses of the events recorded in them, people who had met the risen Jesus for themselves, or were written in close consultation with the eye witnesses of the events recorded in them, and by people who were willing to die for their faith during the intense persecution that broke out against the Church in the first century.

The people who wrote those accounts had first hand experience of what they wrote about, and what they wrote was widely circulated whilst the eye witnesses (including those both for and against Christ) were still alive. They believed that what they wrote was true because they had seen for themselves, and they were willing to die rather than deny the truth of it. The accounts of Jesus resurrection were not written hundreds of years later by people who just made it all up - they were written by eye witnesses who were so convinced it was all true that they were willing to die for that truth.

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The resurrection of Jesus really did happen

I have attempted to present some of the evidence for the resurrection of Christ, as whether Christianity is true or false turns upon whether the resurrection of Jesus really happened or not. I am utterly convinced that the resurrection of Christ really happened, and I also think that God so arranged things that a very strong case can be presented for saying the resurrection did really happen.

It's important to realise that the Christian religion is not based on something irrational and false. It is all true. 'Faith' does not mean believing things to be true which are actually untrue. However...

Merely believing that it's all true does not make anyone a Christian

This is a very important point. To merely believe that the resurrection did really happen does not make anyone a Christian. Believing it's all true doesn't save anyone.

It is possible for someone to believe:

  • that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
  • that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ,
  • that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, fully God and fully human,
  • that he died and rose again,
  • that he will one day return,
  • that there will be a final judgement of everyone who has ever lived,
  • that those who rejected him will be banished from God's presence,
  • that God's own people will be welcomed into a new heavens and new earth,

...and yet still not be a Christian. Those statements above are all true, but faith in Christ is not merely believing that the gospel is true.

Faith is not the giving of a mere intellectual assent to the gospel. It is necessary to believe the gospel is true in order to be a Christian - but it is not sufficient to believe that it is true. The Bible tells us that the demons believe it is all true - and they shudder with fear every time they remember how absolutely true it all is (James 2:19).

So how does someone become a Christian?

It's important to realise why Jesus died and rose again

The Bible makes clear that this is God's world we are living in, and we are accountable to him. This presents us with a very serious problem, for God's standards of goodness, of righteousness, are infinitely high, and we cannot possibly live up to them. God has commanded that we are to love him with our entire being, and love our neighbour as ourselves. Our failure to do this is sin, and it carries a terrible penalty. Because God is so holy and righteous he cannot and will not ignore the breaking of his moral laws, because if he did this he would be compromising his own nature. Sin must be punished, and the punishment is death.

But the Bible also makes clear that God is love, and his love and mercy are so awesome that he provided a way for the just penalty for our sin to be met, without us having to bear it ourselves. God did this by sending his Son, Jesus, who is fully God as well as fully human. Jesus is not some independent third party - rather, Jesus is himself God the eternal Son, who came and lived amongst us as a real human being. Jesus lived the perfect life we never could have lived and then died in our place, taking the punishment we deserved. This was God dealing with our sin himself. Jesus died for our sins on that cross, and rose again - so that we can be forgiven, if we will repent and believe. This is true for all those who truly believe that Jesus died for them, and who turn to Jesus in repentance and faith.

Turning to God in repentance and faith means knowing we are guilty before God and asking God to forgive us for all of our sin. It means turning from all known sin, and asking and trusting Christ to enable us to do this. It means believing that Jesus died on that cross for us personally, and surrendering our lives to Jesus Christ as our Lord and our God, in praise and worship of him, with thankfulness for what he has done for us.

The Bible makes it clear that no sin ever goes ultimately unpunished - either we trust in Christ and what he has done for us, and surrender our lives to him - or God will require the penalty for our sin from us. There is no getting away from how this is clearly presented in the Bible as the truth of our situation - either we know God's forgiveness of our sin through turning to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith, or we will forever bear the punishment for our sin ourselves.

The message of the Bible is that God loves us so much and does not want anyone to perish, he genuinely wants you to turn to him and know his incredible love and forgiveness:

As surely as I live, says the Lord God, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but rather that the wicked turn from their ways and live. (Ezekiel 33:11a)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him. Whoever believes on him is not judged, whoever does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed on the name of God's one and only Son. (John 3:16-18)

God has promised that there will come a time for all who remain in rebellion against God of being judged by him, but God is patient and does not want anyone to fall under his judgment - rather, he wants us to know his love and forgiveness by turning to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith:

The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some count slowness; but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

If you will turn to Christ in this way and put your trust in him, then you have his promise that he will receive you and forgive you:

All that the Father has given me shall come to me; and whoever comes to me I will not turn away. For I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose none of all that he has given me, but should raise them up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who looks to the Son, and believes on him, should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:37-40)

There's more about becoming a Christian here.

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