Evidence That Jesus Was Resurrected

By James L. Morrisson


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A.  Introduction

     The Bible says that, three days after Jesus died on the cross and was laid in the tomb, God resurrected him from the dead. He appeared to many, he spoke with them and let them touch him, he prepared food for them, and he taught the disciples for 40 days about the kingdom of God. Then he was bodily lifted up into heaven.

     These statements about Jesus’ bodily resurrection are thoroughly documented in Scripture. The question, for many, is whether they are credible.

     The question is important for several reasons. (1) Jesus’ bodily resurrection, if it occurred, is strong evidence that he was indeed the Son of God, God who came to earth and lived with men for a time. (2) Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates that God is a God of the supernatural, who can do things far beyond men’s experience or scientific understanding. (3) The power by which God resurrected his son Jesus is the same power which works in those who believe in Jesus; without the resurrection we would not have that power. (4) The resurrection of Jesus is, I believe, central to and inextricably woven into the gospel of Jesus Christ.

     There are two viewpoints from which one can look at this question. One is what I will call the materialist/humanist viewpoint. This says that our only source of knowledge is our own minds, our own five senses, and what we can detect by scientific instruments. It says that the universe either existed always or came into being by chance, and that it runs by a set of immutable laws which cannot be violated. Because the resurrection of Jesus does not fit those laws it cannot have occurred. This is the viewpoint which my father held, and which I held for much of my life.

     The other is the Scriptural viewpoint. This says that there is a God who created the universe and keeps it running. He is able to do things that are outside what men call the normal rules; we call these supernatural occurrences. He acts in people’s lives.This is the viewpoint I now hold.

     We tend to associate what we call the "scientific method" with the materialist/humanist viewpoint. This has not always been the case. Newton, Galileo and many other early scientists believed in a God with supernatural power. They considered the task of science to be that of discovering how that God had set up the universe. Today, as when these men lived, it is perfectly possible to be a scientist, who seeks to discover and understand the normal rules by which the universe operates, and still to recognize that there is a God with supernatural power who is not bound by the "rules" that men have identified. To say that there is a supernatural God is not contrary to science; it merely recognizes that, valuable as science is, there are some things it cannot explain.

     Under this viewpoint, God’s supernatural actions do not violate the "laws of nature." What we call the "laws of nature" are not laws; they are the best effort of scientists, based on the information and understanding available to them, to describe how God’s creation seems to operate. Since man’s ability to observe and his understanding are both limited, these descriptions (which we call laws) are also limited, as is evidenced by the fact that they change from time to time as men achieve new observations or understandings. God does not change and his actions are always consistent with his own nature. His supernatural actions simply show that our scientific understanding of how the universe operates is incomplete, and that there are sometimes occurrences which the "laws" that our scientists have formulated cannot adequately explain.

     If you start with an unshakeable assumption that nothing like the resurrection could have occurred, then no amount of evidence is apt to get you to change your mind. But if you are willing, at the start, to set aside your assumption that supernatural events never occur and to look at the evidence objectively, then I believe you will find the evidence quite convincing that the resurrection of Jesus Christ did occur.

     If you deny that supernatural events ever occur, then, I believe, you are denying that God exists and you are saying that you do not believe in Jesus Christ. The God of Scripture is a supernatural God. Jesus’ incarnation was a supernatural event. Jesus did supernatural things (miracles). If you try, as some German scholars did early in the 20th century, to take the supernatural out of the Bible, you are left with nothing. Some today say that the resurrection of Jesus has great significance, but it was not a historical event. This is treating the resurrection like a placebo.

     Another way of looking at this is to say that we can read the Scriptures from the point of view of their authors, who believed in a supernatural God who acts supernaturally, or we can read them through the filter of our current materialistic/humanistic mindsets and edit out or ignore everything that does not go through that filter. In Romans 12:2 Paul admonished believers, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world." What justification have we for distorting the plain meaning of Scripture to try to make it conform to the materialist/humanist pattern of 19th and 20th century Western thinking?

     In the following pages one of the things I hope to do is to show how intimately the resurrection of Jesus is bound to many of the doctrines of Christianity. Paul said, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (1 Corinthians 15:14). (Scripture quotations are from the N.I.V. unless otherwise noted.) Paul declared, and I believe he was right, that the physical resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian gospel, and that without it the gospel does not make sense. If the gospel account ends with Jesus a corpse lying in a tomb then there is no victory and no hope; the hope of the gospel is because the tomb could not hold Jesus and he rose out of it. Those who profess to follow Paul’s teachings cannot ignore this and other statements by Paul as to what his teachings were based on.


B.  The Historical Record

     In order to determine whether a historical fact occurred we look at available writings, archeological discoveries and other data. We examine those data to see whether they are authentic and internally consistent and whether their source is credible. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus Christ we have a remarkably large number of fairly contemporaneous writings, originally written as separate documents by different authors over a period of some years, and later compiled into what we call the Scriptures. We have, so far as I am aware, no documentary or other evidence to contradict them. When we examine these documents objectively, without any philosophical preconceptions as to whether such an event could have occurred, I believe we must conclude that the historical documentation for the resurrection is remarkably strong and convincing. In this section I shall review what the available documents tell us. In a subsequent section I shall examine some questions that have been raised about the credibility of those documents. I believe that Scripture is a divine revelation of spiritual truth, but in this paper I shall look at it simply from the point of view of a historical record of events that occurred and words that were spoken.


     To avoid encumbering this paper with Scriptural references I have listed, in an appendix, all the Scriptural references I could find to the resurrection of Jesus. I have also included references, far fewer in number, to the closely related teaching about the future resurrection of believers. As 1 Corinthians chapter 15 makes clear, the latter teaching rests explicitly on the fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

     Let me start by commenting on how extraordinarily numerous the references to resurrection are. Six whole chapters of the New Testament deal almost exclusively with resurrection, and I have listed 69 other direct references to resurrection in the Appendix. (I may have missed some.) Resurrection is mentioned in 17 of the 26 books of the New Testament, including all the major ones. The whole teaching of the New Testament is that, in spite of his physical death on the cross, Jesus is still alive and it is because of that fact that we can have hope. So pervasive is the concept that I think it fair to say that to reject the fact of Jesus’ resurrection is to reject the New Testament and to reject any form of Christianity that is based on the Bible.

     I believe a reading of all these references will show that the New Testament account is remarkably coherent and consistent. Jesus expected to be resurrected; he was resurrected and appeared to many; the fact of his resurrection was seen by the disciples as the conclusive proof of who he was and was a primary emphasis of their teaching and preaching; and it was central to the teaching in the epistles. Once you are willing to accept the premise that a supernatural God was capable of resurrecting Jesus from the dead, everything in the Biblical record fits together quite logically. Those who do not accept that premise try to find flaws in the historical record, but their arguments, by ordinary standards of historical verification, are quite unconvincing.


1.  Jesus knew he would be resurrected.

     Scripture tells us that, as Jesus approached his crucifixion, he knew "all that was going to happen to him" (John 18:4). One of the things he knew was that he would be resurrected. Some time before Jesus entered Jerusalem in the final week of his life, Matthew records that "From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed, and on the third day be raised to life" (Matthew 16:21). It sounds as if he said this to the disciples many times. Scripture records five. (See Appendix, paragraph 2.)

     Jesus alluded to his resurrection on at least three earlier occasions. John records that at the beginning of his ministry he told the priests, "destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days." John explains that "the temple he had spoken of was his body" and that "after he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken" (John 2:19-21). Matthew records that, fairly early in his ministry, the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked him for a miraculous sign. He replied that "as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man [his term for himself] will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Mat 12:40). John records that he said, "I lay down my life, only to take it up again... I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again" (John 10:17-18). It would seem that Jesus knew, from the start of his ministry, that he would be crucified and resurrected.

     Scripture says that Jesus, "for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:14). Perhaps part of the joy he anticipated, and that enabled him to endure the shame and agony of the cross, was the knowledge that he would be resurrected. At any rate, he made it clear that he went to his death voluntarily. Jesus said "No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord" (John 10:18). Luke records that "As the time approached for him to be taken up into heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem" (Luke 9:51). He knew that Judas would betray him but did nothing to stop him. On the night he was arrested he even went to his accustomed place so that Judas could find him easily. At the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed repeatedly, "If it is possible let this cup be taken from me. Yet, not as I will but as you will" (Matthew 26:39). When Peter struck out with his sword at Jesus’ arrest, Jesus told him, "Put your sword back in its place... Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" (Matthew 26:52-54). During six hours of agony on the cross, Jesus could at any time have asked his Father to end his suffering, but he did not!

     Some may ask, "how could Jesus have known ahead of time what would happen?" The short answer is that Scripture is very clear in saying that he did. Whether we can understand it or not, that is the historical fact. A historian (or any scientist) has no right to ignore a fact because he cannot explain it. But the statement can be understood in at least two ways. Scripture makes it very clear that Jesus was sent to earth by God and would return to God (see e.g. John 13:3). I believe he knew, before he came to earth, what he would be called on to do and what would happen to him. It was all part of a plan, which was carried out as it was planned. But also, God has given to some the gift of prophecy, and has said that he never does anything "without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7). If ordinary mortals are told in advance what God plans to do, why should it surprise us that Jesus, the Son of God, had such advance knowledge?

 2.  Other references by Jesus to resurrection

     Three of the gospels record a discussion by Jesus of what will happen at the "resurrection of the dead" (Matthew 22:23-32, Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-40). Jesus told Martha, the sister of Lazarus, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies" (John 11:25). (In numerous other places he said that those who believe in him will have eternal life (e.g. John 3:16, 17:2)). He said, "Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it" (John 5:21). He said that God had given him the power to judge all men, and went on to say, "Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his [Jesus’] voice and come out - those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" (John 5:28-29).

3.  The resurrection accounts

     We have four accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, one in each of the four gospels. The beginning of Acts adds further information, and there is an account in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians summarizing the appearances of the resurrected Jesus. (See references in Appendix). The first three gospels were probably written about the same time; they often duplicate each other. John’s gospel was written some time later; he tends, as would be expected, not to repeat material in the other gospels but to add additional material which they do not contain.

     None of these accounts describe the actual resurrection. No one was there to see it. They do tell of Jesus’ followers coming on Sunday morning and finding the tomb empty, and then of various times when Jesus, in his resurrection body, appeared to one or more of them.

     These accounts vary somewhat in detail. I think we can expect that of any accounts of an event. (Indeed if the accounts were identical, the sceptics would probably argue that that was proof that the disciples cooked up a false story.) But the same basic elements are present in all of them.

     These accounts are striking in their detail. They are wholly unlike the usual accounts of ghostly apparitions. It is hard to imagine that all this detail of the persons present, their actions, and the words spoken, could have been invented. If you can put aside the preconception that the resurrection could not have happened, and look at them objectively, they ring true.

      3.1.  The empty tomb

     Jesus died on the cross on Friday and was buried in a cave, with a large stone rolled across the mouth. Mark’s account makes it clear that the stone would have been too heavy for the women to roll away (Mark 16:3). A Roman guard was set over the tomb. I think there can be no doubt that Jesus died. John’s gospel tells us that the soldiers went to break the legs of the victims (which would cause them to suffocate), but when they came to Jesus they found he was already dead (John 19:31-34). The Roman soldiers had officiated at hundreds of crucifixions; they were experts in knowing when a crucified man was dead.

     On Sunday morning some women among Jesus’ followers went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. (All four accounts mention Mary Magdalene and all but John mention an "other Mary," perhaps the mother of Jesus.) Three accounts say (and Matthew implies) that when they got there they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. All four accounts record that one or two angels appeared; three record that the angel(s) said, "He is not here. He is risen." Both Luke and John say that Peter went into the empty tomb and saw the burial cloths folded up; John’s gospel says that John also entered the tomb.

     Mark and Luke do not use the term "angel"; Mark speaks of "a young man dressed in a white robe," and Luke of "two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning." Scripture not infrequently uses "man" to describe what is clearly an angel (Se, for example, Daniel 10:5-6; Gensis 18:10 and 19:2; Joshua 5:13; and Acts 10:30.

     (Some may question these references to angels. Scripture records many appearances of angels and tells us quite a bit about them, and some people today report seeing angels. I think there can be little doubt that angels exist although few have seen them, just as there is little doubt that atomic particles exist although few have ever seen them.)

     If this were all we had it would, I believe, be sufficient proof that the resurrection occurred. But there is much more.

     3.2.  The appearances of the resurrected Jesus

     Scripture records a number of occasions when the resurrected Jesus appeared to various people. As might be expected, different gospels record different appearances. Putting them all together we have a very extensive list. Some of the accounts are quite detailed, as to the circumstances and as to what Jesus said and did.

(1)   Mark and John say that he appeared and spoke to Mary Magdalene; Matthew says he appeared and spoke to both Marys.

(2)   Luke describes at length, and Mark mentions, an appearance to and long conversation with two followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, a town near Jerusalem. Jesus broke bread and gave it to them and then disappeared.

(3)   Mark, Luke and John all describe an appearance in Jerusalem to the disciples. John says that Thomas was absent at the first appearance, and that Jesus appeared again a week later when Thomas was present.

(4)   John describes another appearance to the disciples at Lake Galilee.

(5)   Matthew describes an appearance on a mountain in Galilee.

(6)   Acts 1:3 says that "After his suffering [Jesus] showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God."

(7)   Acts 1:4 tells of a conversation he had "while he was eating with them," and of what seems to be another, later, conversation.

(8)   Acts 1:9 says that at his last appearance with the disciples he was taken up bodily into heaven. A large number of disciples were present. Both Mark and Luke also report the Ascension. (Jesus predicted his Ascension (John 6:62 and 20:17) and the epistles often refer to it (Ephesians 4:8-10; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 4:14;; see also Hebrews 1:13 and 10:12).)

(9)   When Stephen was being stoned he "looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 6:54).

(10) Paul summarizes these appearances and adds others as follows:

     "He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, although some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also" (1 Corinthians 15:4-8).

     3.3.  The nature of Jesus’ resurrection body

     In 1 Corinthians 15:35-54 Paul says that a resurrection body differs from a usual physical body in a number of ways; it is imperishable, has no weakness, and is a spiritual body. Jesus’ body as seen in these resurrection accounts was not the same as the body he had before his death.

     It looked like an ordinary body. Mary Magdalene thought it was the gardener (John 20:15). On the way to Emmaus the two men walked and talked with him for a long time before they realized it was he. Thomas apparently put his finger in the wounds at Jesus’ hands and side. Luke tells us that Jesus ate a piece of fish; John says he broiled some fish, and gave the disciples bread and fish; Acts says that he ate with them. Luke also says he broke bread and gave it to the men on the way to Emmaus. He clearly had a physical body. As he told the disciples, "A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have" (Luke).

     But this was not just an ordinary physical body. He appeared suddenly in their midst, or disappeared. Matthew records that "suddenly" Jesus met the women. Luke records that at Emmaus, after the two men recognized him, "he disappeared from their sight." John says that he twice came through locked doors. And Matthew records that the angels rolled the stone away from the tomb, which would indicate that Jesus had come out through the stone.

     3.4. What the resurrected Jesus said

     A remarkable feature of these accounts is the extended conversations they report, sometimes in considerable detail, between Jesus and his disciples. A number of important sayings and teachings of Jesus are contained in these resurrection accounts. Jesus, characteristically, used these resurrection appearances to continue his teaching and his preparation of the disciples for what they would be called on to do. They are a continuation and culmination of the ministry which he had before the crucifixion.

(1)   Luke tells us that Jesus had an extended conversation with two men who were going to Emmaus. Jesus said "Did not Christ have to suffer all these things and then enter into his glory?" Then "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." This is a continuation of a theme which Jesus began earlier in his ministry, that he was the fulfillment of Scripture. Thus, at the synagogue in Nazareth he read a prophecy of Isaiah and said, "today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21; see also Matthew 11:4). When they came to arrest him he told Peter to put up his sword, because Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion were a fulfillment of Scripture (Matthew 26:54).

(2)   When he appeared to the disciples Luke says "then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures."

(3)  Acts reports that over a period of forty days he taught them about the kingdom of God. This had been the major theme of his teaching from the beginning of his ministry (Mark 1:15).

(4)   Luke says that when the disciples thought he was a ghost he said, "Why are you troubled and why do doubts arise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see. A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." The incident is quite similar to the earlier occasion when the disciples, seeing Jesus walking on the water, were frightened and he reassured them (Matthew 14:26-27).

(5)   Mark reports that Jesus "rebuked [the disciples] for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen." This recalls a number of other instances in which Jesus had rebuked the disciples for their lack of faith (see, for example,. Matthew 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, 17:20).

(6)   Matthew reports Jesus’ statement that "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." (Compare this with John 13:3: "Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power"; see also Luke 10:19).

(7)   Matthew reports Jesus’ statement "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Compare this with John 14:18: "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you", and Matthew 18:28, "Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.")

(8)   John tells us that the resurrected Jesus gave the disciples a miraculous catch of fish, similar to the one Luke reports at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 5:6-7).

     On two occasions, both reported by John, the resurrected Jesus Jesus ministered to one of his disciples. Thomas, who had shown great boldness at the time of Lazarus’ death (see John 11:16), doubted the resurrection. Jesus did not rebuke Thomas. He let him touch his wounded hands and side, at which Thomas cried out "My Lord and my God", and Jesus replied, "Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." Jesus gently and lovingly brought Thomas from a state of doubt to a state of unshakeable belief, and spoke a blessing over future believers. Then he ministered beautifully to Peter, who had been devastated by the fact that, after Jesus’ arrest, he had denied Jesus three times. Three times Jesus asked him "Do you love me?", and when Peter said "yes," he commissioned him to "take care of my sheep" - in other words he gave him pastoral responsibility. This is the last in a series of actions in which Jesus ministered personally to Peter, to prepare him for the responsibilities he would have.

     Above all, Jesus used this time to prepare the disciples and to commission them for the task they would have after he was taken up to heaven. He was with them for forty days, teaching about the kingdom of God. Before his death he had said that he would send the Holy Spirit to them. John reports that after his resurrection he "breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’" Then Acts says that he told them to wait in Jerusalem and "you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you." And finally he gave them what is called the Great Commission, in Matthew’s words, "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." This commission, in varying forms, is reported in all four gospels and the Book of Acts. Just as Jesus sent the disciples out by twos early in his ministry, now he was commissioning them for a much greater task, on whose success the effectiveness of his entire earthly ministry would depend. It was for this moment that he had been preparing his disciples for three years. And the final two steps in this process, the empowering with the Holy Spirit and the giving of the Great Commission, occurred after his resurrection. Those who deny the resurrection must also, presumably, deny that these steps occurred.

     3.5.  The disciples’ reaction to these appearances

     Although Jesus had told them many times that he would be resurrected, the disciples were confused and unbelieving when it occurred. Mary thought Jesus was the gardener. The disciples doubted the women’s account. The men on the road to Emmaus walked with Jesus for a long time without recognizing him. The disciples feared and thought Jesus was a ghost - so much so that Jesus rebuked them for their lack of faith. Thomas refused to believe unless he could see and touch Jesus’ wounds. Only then did he make the stunning declaration, "My Lord and my God."

     This reaction was quite understandable. Despite the careful way Jesus had prepared them for it over and over, what occurred was so far removed from their normal experience that their minds could not handle it. But, as we shall see, once they became convinced that it had truly happened they asserted it boldly on every occasion.

     The fact that the gospel accounts record this confusion and lack of understanding by the disciples tends to confirm the honesty and authenticity of these accounts.


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Copyrightę 2001 by James L. Morrisson