When Paul is writing the first letter to the Corinthians, he writes “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” That’s a pretty serious statement, and it also a true one. The question then becomes, did He? If so, is there a way that we can know? I believe that we can, and we’re going to cover a variety of reasons why that is the case.
Again, we are going to be making an inference to the best explanation, based on the facts surrounding the resurrection. A preliminary consideration is that various, non-Christian, sources confirm the existence of a man named Jesus of Nazareth, who was killed by crucifixion. Tacitus, a Roman historian, writes about this event in his monumental work The Annals, and Josephus, a Jewish historian, writes about it in his Antiquities of the Jews. These two are important because they represent two societies which would have had the most motivation for writing this Christian event out of history, and because they are generally regarded by secular scholars (with some exceptions, of course) to be legitimate works of accurate history.
In addition to the non-Christian references to the crucifixion, you need to take into account the fact that if the early Christians were making all this up, they would not have made such public, easily falsifiable stories. You will well remember the many times in Scripture that Jesus had to correct his followers about their assumption that the Messiah would show up to overthrow the Romans. It would have been terribly embarrassing for their Messiah to have simply died, and that was the end of the story.
However, that is not the only peculiarity in the story. If the resurrection were made up, it was a very bad story, for a number of reasons. Firstly, after his crucifixion, the body of Jesus was taken to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. This means that the location of the body would have been known to both Jews and Christians alike. If the disciples merely claimed that Jesus had risen, but actually hadn’t, anyone could have gone to see if the body was still there or not. Well, perhaps not anyone, but it would have been easy for the Jewish or Roman authorities (two groups hostile to Christianity) to produce the evidence necessary to stop the early Christian movement. Not only that, but one of the earliest explanations of the empty tomb was that the disciples stole the body. That wouldn’t be necessary if the body was still in the tomb, and under Roman guard, no less!
Also, if the story were a fake, it would make no sense to use women as some of the first witnesses of both the empty tomb and the resurrection. Why? Well, because at that time, women were not considered reliable witnesses. There would have been no reason to list this, unless the resurrection actually took place. Jesus didn’t just appear to the women, though. At different times, and under different circumstances, individuals or groups of people claim to have had encounters with the risen Jesus. This is helpful because it means that you can’t use one easy explanation to explain away all the occurrences. Also, these appearances had physical (testable, if you will) elements to them. It would have been far easier to make them spiritual visions, but instead you see the resurrected Jesus eating (Luke 24:41-43) , being touched (John 20:25-27) , and interacting with His followers.
In particular, these appearances converted Paul and James, a skeptic and a persecutor of the church. How do we know that James, Jesus’ brother, was a skeptic? Primarily from John 7:2-5, and Mark 3:20. If Jesus did not physically rise from the dead, how else would you explain the transformation of two men, a skeptic and a persecutor of the church, into two pillars of the early church?
Speaking of the early church, the very existence, rise, and spread of Christianity is something that needs explaining. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, how do you explain the complete transformation of the disciples from being frightened men, hiding in houses (John 20:19), to boldly proclaiming the truths of the gospel? Remember, these men did not gain anything during their lifetimes, and actually were persecuted in various ways until their deaths. With no promise of earthly gain, and a certainty of persecution and death in their lives, it would be difficult to convince even 12 people to go through with it, if they knew they were making it all up.
In summary, we have:
1. The various non-Christian sources that testify to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
2. The easily accessible, and publicly known location for the tomb of Jesus.
3. The fact of the empty tomb.
4. The resurrection appearances of different individuals and groups, at different times, and under different circumstances.
5. The radical transformation in attitudes of both the disciples, and of skeptic James, and church persecutor Paul.
6. The rise, spread, and existence of Christianity.
If you are interested in looking more deeply into this, one person’s work you should look into is Gary Habermas. Here’s a short clip of him giving him a quick defense of the resurrection.
Why is this important? If Jesus rose from the dead, it validates everything He claimed in His earthly ministry. It gives evidence to support the idea, taken from C.S. Lewis, that when confronted with Jesus, you must come to the conclusion that either he was a Liar, a Lunatic, or Lord.
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God” – C.S. Lewis (taken from Mere Christianity)
The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus strongly points to the only viable option for a person seeking the truth about Jesus. He is Lord.