Belief in a Resurrection—Is There a Factual Basis?
Do you believe that people can be resurrected from the dead, to live again? If so, why? If not, why not? If you do not believe in a resurrection you may say: ‘I never saw anyone rise from the dead.’ But just because we ourselves never witnessed a certain event, does this mean that it did not happen? Of course, to believe you must have evidence that such a thing has happened. (Heb. 11:1) Is such evidence obtainable?
Yes, it is. And it is the kind of proof that you would expect for any historical fact or event—evidence from eyewitnesses and others, and evidence of its impact on history.
A CENTRAL HOPE FOR HUMANKIND
We have evidence in the Bible of cases of resurrection, both before and after Jesus’ appearance on earth. (1 Ki. 17:21, 22; 2 Ki. 4:32-35; John 11:43; Mark 5:41, 42) But the most important evidence—that which holds a hope of resurrection to mankind in general—is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whether we individually have any hope of life after death hinges on Christ’s being raised from the dead. It was especially over this teaching that the apostles and other early Christians were brought into much ridicule and suffering.—Acts 4:1-3; 17:32; 23:6, 10; 24:18-21.
Before a crowd of scholars and philosophers in the city of Athens, the apostle Paul said:
“[God] has set a day in which he purposes to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and he has furnished a guarantee to all men in that he has resurrected him from the dead.” Furthermore, Paul told Christian believers: “If, indeed, there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised up. But if Christ has not been raised up, our preaching is certainly in vain, and our faith is in vain.”—Acts 17:31; 1 Cor. 15:13, 14.
EVIDENCE OF CHRIST’S DEATH
Let us present and examine some of the evidence. First, we have the accounts of those who saw Christ put to death and buried. There is no doubt that he was actually executed by the Romans at the behest of the Jewish leaders. The attempt had been made previously to kill him. (Luke 4:28, 29; John 5:18; 8:59; 11:53) In demanding his death, the Jewish leaders went so far as to cry out before the Roman governor Pilate: “His [Jesus’] blood come upon us and upon our children.” (Matt. 27:25) They also intimidated Pilate with a political threat. (John 19:12) Certainly the Jewish opposers, and particularly Christ’s bitterest enemies, the chief priests and leaders, would not have connived to maneuver a fake “death” for him. They would see that he was dead. In any event, the matter was out of their hands and he was sentenced and put to death by the Romans. The Roman historian Tacitus (c. 110 C.E.) stated about Christians: “The name is derived from Christ, whom the procurator Pontius Pilate had executed in the reign of Tiberius.”* The Jewish Talmud also records the hanging of Jesus (on a stake). These and other non-Christian historical accounts support the fact that even Jesus’ opponents never doubted the historicity of Jesus or of his death.
TESTIMONY AS TO CHRIST’S RESURRECTION
As to Christ’s resurrection, there are no fewer than four men who testified publicly to seeing Jesus after his resurrection, and one of their accounts tells us that he was seen by more than 500 Christian disciples. (Matt. 28:16, 17; John 20:19; 21:1, 2; Acts 1:15, 22; 1 Cor. 15:6-8) Someone, however, may say, ‘Yes, but these are all Bible accounts, by Christians. How do we know that they are true?”
To answer that question we might ask: How do you otherwise account for the zeal of so many people in proclaiming that resurrection? Even their enemies claimed that Christians had ‘turned Jerusalem and Judea, yes, the world, upside down’ by their zealous witnessing to Christ’s resurrection. (Acts 5:28; 17:6) Persecution and other factors brought about their scattering and proclaiming this teaching to the point that the Roman world, from Rome to Mesopotamia, took note of their zeal.
As to the truthfulness of these early Christians, consider the following statement by Bible scholar A. J. Maas:*
“Briefly, therefore, the fact of Christ’s Resurrection is attested by more than 500 eyewitnesses, whose experience, simplicity, and uprightness of life rendered them incapable of inventing such a fable, who lived at a time when any attempt to deceive could have been easily discovered, who had nothing in this life to gain, but everything to lose by their testimony, whose moral courage exhibited in their apostolic life can be explained only by their intimate conviction of the objective truth of their message. Again the fact of Christ’s Resurrection is attested by the eloquent silence of the Synagogue which had done everything to prevent deception, which could have easily discovered deception, if there had been any, which opposed only sleeping witnesses to the testimony of the Apostles, which did not punish the alleged carelessness of the official guard, and which could not answer the testimony of the Apostles except by threatening them ‘that they speak no more in this name to any man’ (Acts, iv, 17). Finally, the thousands and millions, both Jews and Gentiles, who believed the testimony of the Apostles in spite of all the disadvantages following from such a belief, in short the origin of the Church, requires for its explanation the reality of Christ’s Resurrection, for the rise of the Church without the Resurrection would be a greater miracle than the Resurrection itself.”
With a similar argument we can refute the untruthfulness of the charges by Jesus’ enemies that the resurrection was an imposture, that his body was stolen, or that it was a visionary hallucination or a collusion. It is clear that the witnesses to the resurrection were certainly not men of power or influence, to overcome or bribe the guards stationed at the tomb. There was little likelihood of a collusion among so many, especially as to something that would be of no personal gain to them. Their witnessing to the resurrection could have no selfish motive; it exposed them to suffering and death. They gave their testimony in the very place where the bitterest enemies were, where certainly a fraud could be uncovered. And they did not wait, but witnessed then, while the rage of the Jews was at its height. Now, if it had been a mere vision or imagination, it would reasonably have been of something expected by them; but Jesus’ appearance after his resurrection was to them a great surprise in their despair and downcast condition—the unexpected. Really, it was the very thing that gave them the courage to bear testimony that could not be broken down under the most violent persecution.
In this matter of such importance, it is beneficial to consider the powerful argument of another eminent scholar and archaeologist, George Rawlinson, who wrote:*
“The early converts knew that they might at any time be called upon to undergo death for their religion. They preached and taught with the sword, the cross, the beasts, and the stake ever before their eyes. . . . and every early writer advocating Christianity, by the fact of his advocacy, braved the civil power, and rendered himself liable to a similar fate. When faith is a matter of life and death, men do not lightly take up with the first creed which happens to hit their fancy; nor do they place themselves openly in the ranks of a persecuted sect, unless they have well weighed the claims of the religion which it professes, and convinced themselves of its being the truth. It is clear that the early converts had means of ascertaining the historic accuracy of the Christian narrative very much beyond ourselves; they could examine and cross-question the witnesses—compare their several accounts—inquire how their statements were met by their adversaries—consult Heathen documents of the time—thoroughly and completely sift the evidence. All this together—and it must be remembered that the evidence is cumulative—constitutes a body of proof such as is seldom producible with respect to any events belonging to remote times; and establishes beyond all reasonable doubt the truth of the Christian Story. In no single respect . . . has that story a mythic character.”
TESTIMONY FROM THE PROPHECIES
Moreover, there are yet other points of evidence. If Christ’s resurrection was foretold before ever it happened, would this not be striking proof of its reality? For how could such evidence be manufactured, especially when it described the Messiah’s death at the hands of his own people, who from Abraham’s time, nearly 2,000 years before, had been looking for him? In the Hebrew Scriptures, kept for centuries by the Jews as their lawbook and the documentary record of their national history, we find advance testimony. In the eighth century B.C.E., the prophet Isaiah described Jesus’ death at the behest of his own people, the Jews:
“He was despised and was avoided by men . . . He was despised, and we held him as of no account. . . . He was being brought just like a sheep to the slaughtering; . . . he was severed from the land of the living ones. . . . And he will make his burial place even with the wicked ones, and with the rich class in his death.”—Isa. 53:3-9.
Of the fact that God would raise him up again to life, the prophet went on to say: “If you will set his soul as a guilt offering, he will see his offspring, he [being resurrected] will prolong his days, and in his hand what is the delight of Jehovah will succeed. . . . the righteous one, my servant, will bring a righteous standing to many people; and their errors he himself will bear.”—Isa. 53:10, 11.
The later prophet Daniel foretold his sacrificial death:
“And after the sixty-two weeks [actually in 33 C.E.] Messiah will be cut off, with nothing for himself. . . . he will cause sacrifice and gift offering [at the Jews’ temple] to cease [replacing them with the real sacrifice of his life].”—Dan. 9:26, 27.
King David prophetically foretold a resurrection from Sheol, the grave, and the apostle Peter applies the prophecy to Jesus Christ. Fifty days after Christ’s resurrection he spoke to 3,000 Jews who recognized the prophecy as referring to Jesus and accepted Peter’s explanation. Peter said:
“God resurrected [Jesus] by loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to continue to be held fast by it. For David says respecting him, ‘I had Jehovah constantly before my eyes; because he is at my right hand that I may never be shaken. . . . Moreover, even my flesh will reside in hope; because you will not leave my soul in Hades, neither will you allow your loyal one to see corruption.’ . . . Because [David] was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath that he would seat one from the fruitage of his loins upon his throne, he saw beforehand and spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that neither was he forsaken in Hades nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God resurrected, of which fact we are all witnesses.”—Acts 2:24-32; compare Psalm 16:10.
The apostle Paul also pointed to the fortieth psalm as applying to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Paul depicts Jesus as saying, at the time of his baptism: “You prepared a body for me . . . Look! I am come . . . to do your will.” Paul adds: “By the said ‘will’ we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all time.”—Heb. 10:5, 7, 10; Ps. 40:6-8.
Certainly there is a remarkable correlation between these prophecies uttered centuries beforehand and Jesus’ death and resurrection. It would be impossible for all the factors involved to be maneuvered by Jesus, or for the story to be made up by his apostles.
JESUS’ OWN WORDS
Furthermore, at the Passover after his baptism, Jesus began to speak of his coming death and resurrection, though it was not until after witnessing the events themselves that his disciples could look back and understand what he meant. The apostle John records such beginning at this early point in Jesus’ association with them, when Jesus said to the Jews: “Break down this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John adds: “He was talking about the temple of his body. When, though, he was raised up from the dead, his disciples called to mind that he used to say this; and they believed the Scripture and the saying that Jesus said.”—John 2:19, 21, 22; compare Matthew 12:40; 16:21-23; Mark 8:31; 10:33, 34.
Since the truth about the resurrection concerns the only possible hope for those who have died, and for all humankind facing the prospect of dying, it should be a subject of the greatest concern, not only to those who believe in Christianity, but to all men everywhere.
Most people love life and would like to see it prolonged indefinitely, if health and contentment accompanied it. They look at news reports daily, hoping to hear good news of peace, progress in the war against disease, and better economic conditions. They hear the testimony of witnesses to daily events, and accept the historical records written by men, even using history as a basis for planning the future. How much more important and sensible it is, then, to examine with open minds the abundant evidence of Christ’s resurrection, upon which rests the hope and promise of life in happiness for humankind!
Annals (XV, 44).
The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913 edition), Volume XII, p. 790.
The Historical Evidences of the Truth of the Scripture Records, pp. 225-227.
[Picture on page 25]
“Christ’s Resurrection is attested by more than 500 eyewitnesses . . . who lived at a time when any attempt to deceive could have been easily discovered”