The three most important pieces of evidence in support of the resurrection of Christ are the vacated tomb, His many appearances testified to by eyewitnesses, and the rise of the Christian church. If these three fundamental facts can be shown to have taken place in the way the Bible says, then a good case is made for accepting that the claimed resurrection actually occurred.
The very earliest accounts of the resurrection all report that Jesus’ tomb was empty; they were all within three days of His burial. So what happened? Opponents of Christianity suggest three possibilities: Jesus didn’t really die; He died but the disciples stole His body; or people looked for the corpse inside the wrong tomb. They’re all quite reasonable alternatives, but under scrutiny don’t stand up.
Could it really have been that Jesus wasn’t actually dead when they buried Him? That He had merely slipped into a coma? Unlikely. The soldiers in charge of His execution were experts at dealing death. After confirming the Galilean on the middle cross was dead, they rammed a spear into His heart—for good measure.
Then there must have been some kind of mix-up over precisely which tomb was the right one. This one’s easy. If Jesus’ followers had gone to the wrong tomb, why didn’t their opponents simply go to the right one? That’s all it would have taken to discredit the disciples’ case.
Well, what about the idea that the disciples stole Jesus’ body? Frankly this one’s a bit of a disaster.
Think about it: the tomb was sealed and guarded by crack troops. And preaching the resurrection wasn’t the most attractive listing in the situations-vacant columns. Why would they have taken all that flack and heat—for proclaiming something they knew to be a cheap lie?
The best explanation for the empty tomb is this: Jesus genuinely came back to life.
Jesus’ followers believed He was alive not simply because of an empty tomb. Rather, it was because they’d seen Jesus right before their eyes. Which takes one to the next important line of evidence—the many appearances of the resurrected Christ. The number of sightings by ordinary people in everyday situations is also evidence that Jesus genuinely rose from the dead.
But again, critics dispute this. Their alternative explanation? Folk who thought they saw the resurrected Jesus were actually hallucinating—they were psychologically disoriented.
That isn’t a smart line of reasoning, for none of the reported sightings were in such a context. When Jesus appeared among His followers, He did so personally—physically and bodily. In fact, on occasion He is reported as having chatted with them as together they enjoyed breakfast on the shore of the lake of Galilee.
The post-resurrected Jesus was sighted on more than 10 separate occasions—in one instance by more than 500 people assembled together. People saw Him over a six-week period prior up to His ascension, in broad daylight and in different places. While one might accept individuals hallucinating here and there, ongoing mass hallucination isn’t a reasonable explanation.
The many sightings of Jesus after His death and burial are evidence that indicate He truly came back to life.
If you deny Jesus’ resurrection, how, do you account for the rise of Christianity so soon afterwards, and in the very city where He was tried and executed? That would be the last place a movement would have been established. There again is compelling evidence the resurrection occurred.
With the mangled body of Jesus hanging from the cross, fledgling Christianity was within a whisker of humiliation and defeat. The less-than-courageous disciples were scared, cowering, but within days of Jesus’ resurrection, they were behaving like world-beaters, facing dungeon, death and banishment, preaching His resurrection.
So what had happened? Once they were convinced of Jesus’ resurrection, they were unstoppable in telling others about it. If the resurrection hadn’t happened, they wouldn’t have put their lives in such danger; their lives wouldn’t have been revolutionised and energised in such a way, and the church would have never taken root.
Coma, grave robbers, wrong tomb, hallucination—they’re just some of the creative alternatives to acknowledging the genuine resurrection. And while they’re superficially plausible, they don’t withstand scrutiny or fit the evidence. One thing is certain: as incredible as the resurrection may seem, the alternatives are more so.
But the issue isn’t resolved in a debate. What really matters is the new life Jesus’ resurrection offers us now. The weight of the evidence suggests that we at least need to give consideration to what the resurrection implies.
Adapted, with permission, from Focus.