Why It Is Reasonable To Believe In Jesus’ Resurrection

The resurrection is central to the Christian faith, as the apostle Paul tells us,

For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised: and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is meaningless; you are still in your sins. Then they also that have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable. (1 Cor 15:16–19)

The Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified (Matt 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:33), that on the cross he died (Matt 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46), his body was removed from the cross by Roman soldiers and given to Joseph of Arimathea (Matt 27:58–69; Mark 15:43–45; Luke 23:52), that Joseph placed his body in a tomb (Matt 27:60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). This all occurred on a Friday (Luke 23:54). The tomb was covered with a large stone, in the shape of a disc, which was pushed down a groove with a slight ramp, and there it was marked by imprinting some clay with the royal seal and guarded with heavily-armed Roman soldiers (Matt 27:62–66; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53), who were most likely members of the Praetorian Guard (Matt 27:27; Mark 15:16). One of the five cohorts of the Praetorians was stationed in Jerusalem. As such, they were either Roman or born in a well-established Roman colony and trained to high standards. On Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and others found his tomb empty (Matt 28:1–7; Mark 16:1–7; Luke 24:1–5).

The Empty Tomb

According to the biblical narratives, the empty tomb was seen by the Praetorians who had been assigned by Jewish authorities to guard it (Matt 28:4). They reported to Jewish authorities about the events associated with Jesus’s resurrection (Matt 28:11–15), who paid them hush money and promised to protect them from any reprisals from their superiors in the regional government. Of course, the lie fabricated by the authorities was implausible from the beginning. Even had the guards fallen asleep at the peril of their own lives—even modern soldiers face penalties for falling asleep when they are supposed to be standing watch—they would have been signing their death warrant by admitting it. Matthew, a former tax collector who had connections in the local government, reports that the Jewish authorities accepted the soldiers’ account as true. I might once have been skeptical about the cover-up story, but as the years have gone on and as I have seen public authorities look straight at us and tell bald-faced lies, my skepticism has given way.

The empty tomb was also seen by Mary Magdalene, by Mary the mother of James, and by Salome (Matt 28:1–6; Mark 16:1–5; Luke 24:1–4). After the women notified the disciples, Peter and John (“the beloved disciple”) also visited the scene and saw the empty tomb with their own eyes (John 20:2–8). Indeed, if the story were true about Jesus’ body having been stolen, we would have expected the scene to be helter-skelter. Instead, John says that they found the linen shroud in the tomb, along with the neatly folded face cloth in the arcosolium (the compartment in which Joseph laid Jesus’ body). The idea that a band of disciples sneaked in, silently pushed the heavy stone disc up the ramp, removed Jesus’ body, removed the linen shroud, and removed the face cloth—leaving it neatly folded in the compartment—without waking the soldiers begs belief.

The Risen Christ

The story told by the theological liberals—those who would deny the substance of the Christian faith by rewriting it and retaining its vocabulary—is that the disciples experienced the risen Christ subjectively. The biblical narratives will not permit this revisionist account. They demand to be treated as claims concerning objective historical facts. They would have us believe that Jesus was raised bodily from the grave and the disciples and 500 others (1 Cor 15:5–6) saw the risen Christ with their eyes. Luke, who claims to be a credible reporter of facts (Luke 1:1–4), wrote a sizable section of a chapter describing Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to two disciples (Luke 24:13–49) on the road to Emmaus. Jesus gave them empirical evidence of the reality of his bodily resurrection. They saw him with their eyes (Luke 24:36–43; John 20:19–20) and both Mary Magdalene (John 20:17) and Thomas (John 20:24–29) touched him. He even ate with them (Luke 24:30, 41–42). Not only was he seen bodily by the 500, but also by the apostle James and, later on the road to Damascus, by the apostle Paul (Acts 9:1–9), an episode that was witnessed by several others.

Assessing The Evidence

As we know, in the age of the internet anyone can claim anything. We must be responsible, critical readers and thinkers. Whenever we are asked to believe something that we did not ourselves directly experience with our senses, we must ask whether the witnesses and reporters are credible. Read the gospels. Do the writers seem like sane, credible authors? Are they given to hyperbole or do they damage their credibility such that a reasonable person would rightly doubt their reliability when it comes to the resurrection narratives?

When I compare the canonical gospels with other ancient texts from the period, they stand up well. This exercise has focused on the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The gospels vary some in detail, and the differences are easily accounted for by their audiences. Luke was writing to a certain Theophilus, Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience, and Mark was probably writing for a Gentile Christian audience in Rome. Each of those groups of readers would have had slightly different questions and backgrounds. The narratives are complementary and cohere. They report unfavorably on themselves and upon their colleagues. In other words, were the stories fabricated, there would be no reason to include potentially embarrassing stories. For example, in the holy Qur’an the prophet is consistently portrayed heroically and as greater than other prior prophets. The realism of the gospels, by contrast, is striking.

Do the narratives contain clues that might signal that they are false? The Gnostic communities of the second century, a little less than a century after the death of Jesus, began to produce alternative Gospels and alternative Acts of the apostles, and so on. These are clearly competing, parallel accounts, in which figures other than the apostles and sometimes other than Jesus are the protagonists. But we find clues, which are more like dead giveaways, when reading these narratives critically. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas has Jesus present in the second century, about a century after his death and resurrection. There are elements of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (c. AD 150s), which are probably later additions that differ starkly in tone and in character from the older narrative. These were added by well-meaning but unskilled redactors to give the narrative a little more excitement and emotional power.

The biblical gospel authors are talking about the same world that you and I inhabit. They are evidently in their right minds—they give no evidence to the contrary. Further, they published claims that would have easily been refuted by contemporaries had they been false. For example, the resurrection associated with the death of Jesus:

And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:51–54).

Matthew did not claim that people had visions in which the dead appeared, but rather that there was an earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death and that tombs were opened, and that people emerged resurrected and alive. Further, Matthew says that those who were raised went into the city and were seen. Either these things happened, or they did not. Does Matthew seem as though he is delusional? He has never struck me thus and I began reading him when I was a skeptical pagan. He seemed to me then as now—a sober man with an amazing story to tell.

Can we believe ancient texts? That is a large question to which the shorter answer is: Why not? Obviously, antiquity does not create truth, but unless we are willing to dismiss all historical narratives written before Modernity, we must trust these texts. To dismiss them all en masse would be the height of folly and arrogance. Thus, we have to sort through them. Some writers have proven to be more reliable and others less so. Compare Luke to any ancient historian (e.g., Herodotus, Thucydides, et al.). Luke holds his own.

What about the supernatural? The Modern impulse to dismiss the resurrection narratives specifically and the gospels generally rest upon the assumption that we live in a closed universe and that reasonable, enlightened persons no longer believe in the supernatural. This is essentially a religious and not a historical objection. The historian is interested in what happened. It is not the historian’s business to say a priori what can or cannot happen. We know what usually happens, but we do not know what can happen. The guards at Jesus’ tomb did not expect an earthquake or an angel, and it terrified them. If on September 10, 2001, someone had told enlightened, critical Moderns that a group of men, armed with no more than box cutters, would succeed in an improbable plot to hijack jets and fly them into buildings, thus killing thousands and bringing the United States of America to a complete stand still and plunging much of the world into a two-decades-long war, they would have said that such a claim was bizarre at best. Yet, that is exactly what happened. As best we know, a single, deranged gunman shot President Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Even more improbably, another gunman walked up to the assassin, who was surrounded by police and authorities, and shot him. These things seem so improbable that conspiracy theories flourish as alternative explanations.

Do we see resurrections today? No. Does this mean that earthquakes, angels, and resurrections are impossible? No, it does not. I cannot prove with empirical certainty that the bodily resurrection of Jesus happened. I need not. We have multiple, credible, eye-witness accounts of the sort that we trust regularly.

I am reliably informed that I was born (rather early as it turned out) in 1961 in a small town in Kansas. I was born so early that both my mother and I were imperiled. There just happened to be a physician visiting the town where I was born and my mother’s physician, who was not able to help her, sent for the visiting physician who saved both of us. I spent at least eight weeks in an isolate with round-the-clock nursing care until I was released from the hospital. I have no memory of it, of course, and there is only one living witness. The only other piece of evidence is a piece of paper purporting to be from the hospital. By some standards, it is a story that should not be believed because of the paucity of evidence. Empirical evidence is important and useful, but it is not the final standard of truth, or we shall quickly fall into skepticism, which is a cul-de-sac to be avoided. There is abundant oral tradition to justify my confidence about where and when I was born. The people who told me the story had nothing to gain from fabricating the story. The improbable elements in the narrative might only detract from the credibility of the story but it really happened that way.

Final Thoughts

History is messy. Most of world history happened before film and video. Even those are hardly infallible. They can be “deep-faked.” Many a riot has been started over the circulation of a misleading piece of video. We need to be more critical of that which we have come to accept as reliable (e.g., video) and more trusting of older, even ancient narratives.

It is not as if the choice is between Christianity and no religion. We all trust something. In that sense there are no absolutely irreligious people in the world. In the post-Christian world, religion has flourished, but it has not been Christianity alone. Islam flourishes. Neo-paganism flourishes. Even a hack fiction writer like L. Ron Hubbard (1911–86) was able to bamboozle people into creating a religion around his second-rate novels. Scientology—now there is a leap of faith. Mormonism is a leap of faith. Neo-paganism is a leap of faith. Superstition is a leap of faith.

Christianity, however, rests on eyewitness testimony and historical claims. They are extraordinary claims to be sure but claims nonetheless about what happened in history.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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One comment

  1. I just sent this to a Muslim friend in Oman… Hopefully he will read and digest it. We have been discussing religion for 18 months.

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