Evidence That Jesus Was Resurrected

By James L. Morrisson


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C.  The arguments against historical validity

     To deny the historical validity of this mass of evidence two main arguments are made: (1) that the whole resurrection story was a deliberate fabrication, and (2) that the historical documents are not trustworthy. In considering both it is important to keep in mind that, for either of them to succeed, it is necessary to show, not only that the resurrection accounts in each of the four gospels and the Book of Acts are false, but that Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection are false, the accounts of the apostles’ preaching and encounters with the Sanhedrin are false, and the apostles’ doctrine as revealed in the epistles rested on a false premise. To put it another way, those who would edit the resurrection out of the Scriptures must not only delete the final chapters of the four gospels and the beginning of the Book of Acts, but they must also delete all the other Scriptures listed in the Appendix.

     Augustine, one of the early church fathers, has an appropriate comment about those who would edit out parts of Scripture:

"If you believe what you like in the Gospel and reject what you do not like, it is not the Gospel you believe but yourself."

1.  The argument that the resurrection account was a fabrication

     Paul addressed this very issue. He wrote, "If Christ has not been raised... we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead." He went on, "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead" (1 Corinthians 15:14-15, 20). Paul put his own credibility on the line on this issue. Are we to say that Paul is a false witness about God?

     No shred of evidence has been produced that any of the disciples said "let’s make up a story" or "this is the story we all must agree on." There is no evidence of a fabrication; the fabrication argument is simply an inference. It says, "The story could not have been true; therefore it must have been fabricated."

     The Jewish religious leaders - the Sanhedrin, the High Priest, the Pharisees, Sadduccees and teachers of the law - must have wanted desperately to disprove the resurrection. Matthew tells us that they tried to bribe the Roman guards to tell a false story (Matthew 28:11-15). For many years they put heavy pressure on the disciples - arrests, imprisonments, beatings, threats. Acts speaks of "persecution." Some, like Stephen and James (the brother of John), were killed. But we are asked to assume that, over a period of years, none of the disciples cracked under this pressure and admitted that the supposed fabrication was false. Paul wrote, "If there is no resurrection, ...why do we endanger ourselves every hour?" (1 Corinthians 15:29-30). Is it credible that Paul would have endured everything he did for the sake of a fabrication and a lie?

     Chuck Colson has an interesting comment on this. He was part of a conspiracy to tell a false story of what happened in the Watergate incident during Nixon’s presidency. The conspirators had all the power of the White House behind them, and were subjected to none of the kinds of pressures mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Yet the conspiracy held together for only a few weeks, and then one of its members admitted it. Colson comments that it is very difficult to conceal a conspiracy to tell a lie.

     The disciples loved, admired and worshiped Jesus. They devoted their lives to his teachings, giving up their families and normal livelihoods. Church tradition and history tells us that ten of the disciples suffered martyrdom, often very painfully, and that John was boiled in oil and exiled. Paul was flogged five times, beaten with rods, stoned and left for dead, imprisoned, shipwrecked, set upon by highwaymen, and endured many other hardships for the sake of the gospel. Is it credible that they would have endured all this for what they knew to be a fabrication?

     If we assume the fabrication theory, is it credible that hundreds, even thousands, of Christians would endure this suffering and see their fellows suffer and not one of them would break and reveal the fabrication?

     Jesus said that he is the truth, that it is the truth that sets men free, and that the devil is the father of lies (John 14:6, 8:32, 44-45). He and the apostles warned against deceivers (Matthew 24:4,24; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; 1 Timothy 4:1). The apostles taught that they must "put off falsehood and speak truthfully" (Ephesians 5:25; see also verse 15 and Colossians 3:9). They taught that liars will be sent to a fiery lake of burning sulfur (Revelation 21:8). Is it credible that they would have so far departed from the teachings of Jesus, and their own teachings, as to rest their gospel on a deliberate lie? Jesus also said that we show our love for him by obeying his commandments (John 14:15,21). Is it credible that the disciples would have thought they were showing their love for Jesus by putting forward a lie in the name of the one who is the truth? The answer to all these questions is clearly, "No!"

2.  The argument that the historical record is not trustworthy

     The argument of untrustworthiness focusses on the gospel accounts. It asserts that by the time they were written recollections of what Jesus said and did would have become inaccurate, and colored by a body of myths or wishful thinking that would have built up.

     The dates when the gospels were written have been the subject of much discussion. One common view is that the first three gospels were written in the early 70s A.D., about 40 years after Jesus’ death (which is estimated at either 30 or 33 A.D.) , and that the gospel of John was written about 90 A.D. A good argument can be made that the first three gospels were written somewhat earlier than this, in the late 50s or early 60s A.D. (See Appendix II). Whichever dates are adopted, the first three gospels were written at a time when many were still alive who had seen and participated in the events which they record.

     I think we can take all four gospels as based on eyewitness accounts. Matthew is generally believed to have been written by Matthew the tax collector, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, a participant in the events he records. John claims (John 21:24) to have been written by the disciple John, whom Jesus called "the beloved disciple." If not actually written by him it was based on his recollections. Mark was written by John Mark, at whose mother’s house the disciples met for an important time of prayer not long after the crucifixion (Acts 12:12). (John Mark may well have been the "young man" referred to in Mark 14:51, which would place him at Jesus’ arrest.) John Mark was a close associate of Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and the tradition of the early church was that his gospel was based on Peter’s teaching. We know that he was active in the early church, was a traveling companion of Paul on his first missionary journey (47-48 A.D.), and was with Paul near the end of Paul’s life (Col 4:10, 2 Tim 4:11). Luke tells us that his gospel was based on the accounts of "eyewitnesses," which he collected and carefully investigated (Luke 1:3-4). As a companion of Paul during his journeys and his two-year imprisonment in Palestine, Luke would have had ample opportunity to speak to those who were eyewitnesses. As already noted, the early apostolic preaching emphasized that they were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. This same emphasis on eyewitness testimony is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7; 2 Peter 1:16-18, and 1 John 1:1-4.

     Luke begins his gospel with the following statement, "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they have been handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things which you have been taught" (Luke 1:1-4). Luke took "many" existing eyewitness accounts (his wording suggests that some of these may have been written), investigated them carefully, and wrote an orderly account so that the one to whom he addressed it could "know the certainty" of the things reported. Luke’s stated purpose was to investigate carefully and be as factually accurate as possible. That purpose extended to his second volume, which we know as the Book of Acts. Sir William Ramsey, a British archeologist and historian, who started by assuming that Acts had no historical value, after comparing Luke’s record with every archeological artifact and historical document he could find, concluded that Luke was a "historian of the first rank." Those who doubt the accuracy of the gospels are asking us to believe, either that Luke was a fabricator, or that he allowed his factual record to become corrupted by a large mass of myths or wishful thinking.

     Some have gone to great lengths to construct hypotheses as to how the genuine facts might have become corrupted. Such as I have seen are pure speculation, with no objective evidence that what they suppose to have happened in the writing of these accounts actually occurred. C.S. Lewis makes an interesting comment about this kind of reconstruction after the fact. He says that critics who have applied similar techniques to his own writings have been 100% wrong. He asks why we should believe that a methodology which doesn’t work when applied to contemporary writings coming out of the same culture, would nevertheless be valid when applied to 2,000 year old writings coming out of a very different culture. It seems to me that we are on much safer ground to accept the historical documents on their own terms, rather than rely on speculative reconstructions, most of which are evidently colored by their authors’ difficulty in fitting the reported facts into their 19th or 20th century Western mindsets.

     As noted, Luke’s statement suggests that there may have been earlier written accounts, now lost, which he used. Others of the gospel writers could also have used such accounts to verify the accuracy of their own recollection. Moreover, in the Near East of that time it was not uncommon to carry considerable bodies of fact by oral tradition. Jesus deliberately cast much of his teaching in forms that would be easily remembered. Events of this magnitude and extraordinary character would fix themselves indelibly in a person’s memory. Common experience tells us that equally powerful, and indeed much lesser, events can be remembered accurately after a number of years. For example, I remember quite clearly the time, place, circumstances and details of the occasion when I proposed to my wife, and she accepted, over 60 years ago. Recently our daily newspaper published a very detailed account of the landing at Omaha Beach in June 1945, as experienced by one Army Reserve unit. The account, written by a news reporter who, like Luke, had consulted with eyewitnesses who survived the landing, rang true. No one suggested that this account, of events which occurred 55 years earlier, must necessarily have been faulty, unreliable, encrusted with mythology, etc..No one suggested that the survivors could not possibly have recalled accurately the events of the most terrifying days of their lives, or that the compiler could not have been motivated by the desire to give the most accurate account possible. I see no reason to assume that the historical records we have of Jesus’ resurrection, most of them written about 30-40 years after the event, could not have been factually accurate.

     Scripture itself addresses this precise issue. Peter, one of Jesus’ closest companions, wrote, "We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain" (2 Peter 1:16-18). Anyone who reads the account of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13) can well believe that the details of it would still have been clear in Peter’s mind some 30 years later when he wrote this letter.

     John also emphasized that his teaching was based on eyewitness experience: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched - this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared, we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us" (1 John 1:1-3; see also John 1:14, 21:24). "We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard" - I think this statement fairly characterizes the whole of the gospel record.

     The gospel accounts and the Book of Acts are historical records. They are not "cleverly invented stories" nor are they to be dismissed as an accumulation of inaccuracies, wishful thinking and myths that grew up over many years. Some are eyewitness accounts and the others are based on eyewitness accounts, written by men of proven character who had every incentive to report accurately and who wrote when many were still alive who had been there. As historical documents they are entitled to be believed and trusted.

     I am trained as a lawyer; I came to Jesus Christ late in life (in my 60s), and the more I study the Scriptures the more impressed I become with how internally consistent they are and how believable the accounts are, once you overcome the initial skepticism that God is capable of acting supernaturally.

     But we do not have to stop there. We have references to Jesus’ resurrection in letters by Paul written in 48 and 50 A.D., less than 20 years after Jesus’ death, and they treat the fact as one that is well-established and understood. In 1 Corinthians 15:6, written about 55 A.D. Paul says that Jesus’ resurrection was seen by over 500 people "most of whom are still alive." This does not sound like a mythical distortion of the historical record.

     The historical record in Acts, going back to the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’ death, records the disciples’ in-your-face preaching of resurrection, and the attempts of the Jewish leaders to suppress it. These accounts do not read like mythical accounts someone made up many years later. They have a ring of authenticity about them. And even using a late dating of Acts, they were written when many would still have been alive who were present at these events.

     The epistles over and over refer to the resurrection of Jesus as a well-established historical fact. Are we to conclude that in writing thus Paul, Peter and the author of Hebrews were participants in, or had been fooled by, a deliberate fabrication? Or that they were misled by a tissue of myths and wishful thinking so as to base much of what they said on a falsehood? On what basis should we conclude this, other than a philosophical assumption that the resurrection of Jesus could not have occurred?

     Some emphasize the differences in the resurrection accounts as evidence of untrustworthiness. Many of these so-called differences arise because different writers chose to report different ones of a considerable number of occurrences. There is no inconsistency is saying that Jesus appeared at the tomb, on the road to Emmaus, in Jerusalem, at Lake Galilee and at a mountain in Galilee; he could perfectly well have appeared at all of these places and at others which were not reported. Jesus appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days; there could well have been a large number of separate appearances at various locations. Similarly, in the accounts of the empty tomb, the is no inconsistency in the fact that one writer chooses to focus on Mary Magdalene, while others mention that Mary the mother of Jesus, and others, were also there. This is just a difference in focus. Without attempting a detailed analysis of these asserted differences, let me simply say that if you approach the issue with an open mind I believe you will conclude that they are the kind of differences in detail that one would normally expect from eyewitness accounts and that they do not detract from the basic agreement of all the accounts on the essentials of the occurrences.

     By the ordinary standards of historical writing all of these resurrection accounts have a ring of authenticity about them. I submit that the attempt to deny their authenticity stems, not from any defect in the accounts themselves, but from a mindset that insists that nothing like this could possibly have occurred, which causes one to reject the very credible evidence that it did in fact occur.



D.  Conclusion.

     J.B. Phillips reminds us that "The modern intelligent mind has got to be shocked afresh by the audacious central fact that as a sober matter of history God became one of us." The same can be said about the resurrection. The modern intelligent mind has got to be shocked afresh by the audacious central fact that as a sober matter of history, after Jesus died and was buried, God raised him from the dead and he lives today. The disciples were shocked by it. They could not take it in, despite the fact that Jesus had told them repeatedly that it would happen. But when they were finally convinced that it had happened, it turned them around. They used that conviction as proof to themselves and others that Jesus was indeed God who came to earth for us, and they based their preaching and teaching on that conviction. It is not surprising that, to many today, the assertion that Jesus was resurrected from the dead is shocking and seems incredible. But that is no ground for rejecting it.

     Scripture tells us that God’s thoughts are far higher than ours, and his ways are far higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). This is the very nature of God. If God’s thoughts were limited to the level of our thoughts, and if God could only do what we can do, he would not be God, and we would all be in very sad shape! It should not surprise us that God does things that are totally beyond anything we have ever experienced or seen. Scripture tells us that "nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). The God who created the entire physical universe out of nothing and sustains it with his word is capable of raising Jesus from the dead. Once we can accept the idea that the resurrection could have happened, then I think we must conclude that the available record gives compelling evidence that it did happen.





I.  Scriptural References to Resurrection


1.  Old Testament Suggestions

Job 19:29; Psalm 16:10; Isaiah 53:11; Daniel 7:13-14, 12:52. There may be many others.

2.  Jesus’ Predictions of his own Resurrection

(Note: Where different gospels refer to the same event, I shall list all but the first in parentheses)
Matthew 12:39-40
Matthew 16:21; (Mark 8:31-2; Luke 9:22).
Matthew 17:9; (Mark 9:9-10).
Matthew 17:22-23; (Mark 9:31-32).
Matthew 20:18-19; (Mark 10:33-34; Luke 18:31-33).
Matthew 26:32; (Mark 14:28).
John 2:19-22.

3.  The Resurrection Accounts

Matthew chapter 28; Mark Chapter 16; Luke chapter 24; John chapters 20-21; Acts 1:1-11.

4.  Other references in the Gospels

Matthew 22:23-33; (Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-40).
Matthew 27:52-53.
Luke 14:14.
John 5:21, 25, 28-29.
John 6:39, 40, 44, 54.
John 11:23-25.
Matthew 14:2; (Mark 6:14-16; Luke 9:7).

5.  Apostolic Preaching and Teaching

Peter. Acts 2:24, 31-32; 3:15; 4:10; 5:29-32; 10:40-41
Paul. Acts 13:30-37; 17:3, 18, 31-32; 23:6; 24:15; 26:8, 23.
Apostles generally. Acts 4:2, 33.

6.  Other references in the Book of Acts

Acts 1:22.

7.  The Epistles

(Dates preceding each epistle indicate approximately when it was written. For Paul’s epistles I have used the dates in F.F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, Eerdman’s. 1980. For other epistles I have used those in Robert H. Gundry, Survey of the New Testament, Zondervan, 1970)

48 A.D. Galatians 1:1.
50 A.D. 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 4:14-16; 5:10.
55-56 A.D. 1 Corinthians 6:14; chapter 15.
55-56 A.D. 2 Corinthians 1:9, 4:11,14, 5:15; 13:4.
57 A.D. Romans 1:4; 4:24-25, 5:10, 6:4-5,8-10; 7:4; 8:11,34; 10:9; 11:15; 14:9.
60-62 A.D. Ephesians 1:20, 2:6; 5:14.
60-62 A.D. Philippians 2:2:9; 3:10-11
60-62 A.D. Colossians 2:12, 3:1.
65 A.D. 2 Timothy 2:8-9
60s A.D. Hebrews 6:2, 7:24-25, 10:12, 11:35, 13:20
64-65 A.D. 1 Peter 1:3, 21, 3:18-22. 

8.  Revelation

Revelation 1:5, 18; 2:8; 20:5-6.


II  Note on Dating of the First Three Gospels

     Luke’s account in Acts ends with Paul in prison in Rome. (Paul went to Rome in 60 A.D.) Luke says nothing about the great persecution in Rome during Nero’s reign, nor about the martyrdom of Paul and Peter in Rome in about A.D. 65, nor about the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Many believe that Paul was released from prison and later reimprisoned again, before his execution in 65; Luke’s account says nothing of those events. Hence it seems reasonable to date the writing of Acts before all these events, i.e. 64 or 65 A.D. at the latest and perhaps as early as 62 A.D. Luke’s gospel is earlier than Acts. Mark’s gospel is generally thought to be earlier than Luke’s and Matthew’s about contemporaneous with Luke’s.This would gove us dates for the first 3 gospels in the early 60s or late 50s A.D.

     Matthew, Mark and Luke all record Jesus’ prophesy of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem as a future event. If those gospels had been written after the Temple was destroyed one would have expected some statement that the prophecy had been fulfilled. The absence of any such statement suggests that they were written before 70 A.D.

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Copyrightę 2001 by James L. Morrisson