In the first century near Jerusalem, thousands of people witnessed the violent and graphic execution of Jesus by the occupying Romans. Seeing crucified men hanging on poles along Roman roads was not that unusual at the time. What was unusual is that in the weeks that followed the crucifixion of Christ, hundreds of people saw him very much alive and healthy, eating, talking, and teaching. What if I told you that the full range of scholars in the field, nearly unanimously grant these ancient testimonials, but what were they seeing?
I totally understand if you find it difficult to believe that the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus actually happened. I myself have heard people claim they saw some person who actually died some years earlier, but I usually give zero credibility to such claims. So why would Jesus of Nazareth be any different?
Probably the first thing we should do is check out what the scholars say.
New Testament scholar, Gary Habermas, performed a survey of academic publications spanning a period of 35 years, covering three thousand sources in English, French, and German. His objective was to catalogue the positions for the full range of scholars in the field, spanning atheists, agnostics, non-religious, as well as religious, on a wide variety of topics to do with the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Was there a consensus on some points? Were there points where there was near-unanimous agreement?
There were many things he found a consensus on, but only four things that the full range of scholars in the field unanimously, or nearly unanimously, granted as historical fact.
The first fact was that Jesus performed feats that both he and his followers interpreted as miracles. Note that the full range of scholars are not saying they were actual miracles, only that they were “feats” that the people understood to be miracles.
The second historical fact that is nearly unanimously granted is that Jesus viewed himself as the promised Messiah, the saviour of humanity.
The third fact is that he died by crucifixion. I should mention that many people believe, without any historical evidence, that he was somehow rescued from being crucified, but the historical evidence from both Christian and non-Christian Roman sources clearly indicates he died by crucifixion.
The fourth historical fact is that shortly after Jesus’s death, his followers had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that he had risen from the dead and had appeared to them. The full range of scholars are not saying that people actually saw Jesus. No. What they grant is that they had “experiences” that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had appeared to them.
Keep in mind that the reason scholars almost unanimously grant this is because there is simply too much historical evidence from both ancient Christian and non-Christian sources to seriously dispute this.
One example of such a source is the Apostle Paul, who recorded an event where Christ appeared to a group of approximately five hundred people, the majority of whom were still alive when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. All these appearances ended exactly 40 days after the crucifixion with one exception. The Apostle Paul was a highly committed enemy of Christianity, but after seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus, he totally did an about-face. The full range of scholars are almost unanimous that Paul actually had an experience of seeing the risen Christ, even if they do not wish to grant that it was Jesus Christ he actually saw.
What this means is that if you brought those witnesses into court today and asked them to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and then asked them if they literally saw Jesus in a very real, physical form after his crucifixion, they would say yes.
So how do the scholars account for these “experiences?”
The thing to think about is this. If I wish to deny that all those people actually saw Jesus, I still must explain those experiences, which is exactly what the scholars in the academic world try to do.
There are actually six or seven major theories to account for these first century experiences of seeing Jesus for a period of 40 days after his crucifixion. Of these, only one theory posits that Jesus actually rose from the dead and that the appearances, therefore, were very real. None of the remaining theories grant that the appearances were physical. Instead, a variety of psychological or spiritual explanations are proposed.
One scholar, Michael Licona, has done an extremely rigorous examination, using five criteria used by historians, of each of the competing theories to see 1. which gives the best explanation, 2. how plausible each one is given the generally agreed upon historical facts, 3. how well the theory accounts for the facts, 4. how good the explanation is, and 5. if it also explains other historical facts or problems.
His analysis is contained in a seven-hundred-page book called, The Resurrection of Jesus, a new historiographical analysis. At the end of his detailed, rigorous analysis, Licona found that only one theory satisfied all the historiographical criteria, and that was that Jesus actually rose from the dead and appeared physically to people, where they could touch him, eat with him, and hear him talking to entire groups of people.
So let’s think about this for a minute.
First of all, this does not prove that Jesus rose from the dead. But what it does do is show that among the six or seven historical theories concerning what happened, the most rational position to take is that people actually saw the risen Jesus, in a physical form, for a period of forty days after the crucifixion.
You might be wondering why we cannot simply eliminate that option since it would require a miracle, but that is exactly what we are trying to determine . . . did a miracle occur here or not?
Looking at it from a different angle, we cannot simply say, every time we observe a miracle, that it was not a miracle because miracles can’t happen. That is a form of circular reasoning, or assuming your conclusion in your opening premise.
Still, we have not proved that Jesus physically appeared to these first-century people, but this is not the only argument we have to consider when trying to decide if Jesus actually rose from the dead. There are three other, highly unusual pieces of evidence that I discussed in three videos before this, and briefly summarized below.
So let’s put all four pieces evidence together to see what the implications are.
First, there were ancient prophecies of the Messiah that we know with certainty existed before the time of Christ and that some of those prophecies seemed to indicate he would be killed, but not stay dead. This is unique in human history. Nowhere else do we have ancient prophecies that we can verify existed long before the person appeared in history. In fact, authentic Christianity is the only religion in the world that started thousands of years before its founder, in this case, Jesus the Messiah or Christ, showed up in history.
Second, we know from ancient Roman sources that there was an explosion of belief that Jesus had risen from the dead that swept through the Roman Empire within a few decades of Christ’s crucifixion, and ground zero was Jerusalem. This is not a religious belief; it is historical fact based on non-Christian, Roman sources. This, too, appears to be unique in all of human history. There have been many religions, but none have been observed to explode over such a large part of the civilized world so swiftly as this.
Third, we have confirmation from a non-Christian source that the location of the tomb was known, it had been guarded by Roman soldiers, and was empty on the third day.
Finally, we have the resurrection appearances for a period of forty days after the crucifixion.
Each one of these is remarkable. Astronomer Carl Sagan is famous for his quote, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the long prophesied Messiah and rose physically from the dead is an extraordinary claim, but these four historical phenomena we have just looked at are extremely extraordinary . . . so extraordinary that each one of them is unique in history. Yet history seems to indicate that these four highly unusual events happened.
As I have emphasized, this does not prove with certainty that Jesus did rise from the dead, but we can conclude two things:
First, the evidence consists of four extraordinary historical phenomena.
Second, of the different conclusions we could arrive at, the one that has the best rational basis is that around 33 AD, a man who claimed he was the promised Messiah was brutally executed, exactly as prophesied, but then rose physically back to life on the third day after his crucifixion.
So what does this mean for us?
Perhaps something Jesus said summarizes it best.
“This is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I myself will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40).
If his body was still in a tomb to this day, we would have zero reason to take his claim seriously. But if he rose physically from the dead, then we have good reason to conclude that he is the long-promised Messiah, the Christ, and that he can raise each one of us up on the last day.