There is quite a bit of evidence that Jesus was crucified. A number of biblical authors attest to this but several ancient non-Christian writers do as well. The big question then, and indeed the crux of the whole truth of Christianity, is whether Jesus came back to life after three days as the biblical authors claim.
Many skeptics seek 100% certainty or proof that Jesus rose from the dead. Those seeking this type of proof will be disappointed. However, just like in an investigation or court case, we can examine all the evidence and decide which explanation best fits the evidence we have.
When it comes to whether Jesus rose from the dead, one of the biggest facts that we have available to us is the fact that Jesus’ disciples, and as many as several hundred people, believed that they saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion. How do we know this fact?
Several biblical authors claim that Jesus appeared to the disciples and others. Now, before you skeptical authors object that I am using the Bible as evidence, let’s just consider that one doesn’t need to accept the inerrant, inspired authority of the Bible to accept the claim. The Bible is, after all, a piece of ancient literature; and we can investigate it as we would other types of ancient literature and try to see what the authors are claiming. In this case, it is clear that the authors claimed to have seen Jesus after his crucifixion and they claimed that as many as several hundred had seen him. In fact, nearly all New Testament scholars, both Christians and non-Christians, accept as fact that the disciples claimed and believed that they saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion.
What are some examples of the disciples claims to have seen the risen Jesus?
- Peter claimed that the disciples witnessed the risen Jesus. Luke, in Acts 2, writes about Peter’s sermon to a crowd at Pentecost in which Peter says that after Jesus’ crucifixion that “God raised him up” and “this Jesus God raised up, and of this we are all witnesses.”
- Paul claims that the disciples, as many as 500 people, and he himself saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes that “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” This is an incredible claim, especially since Paul reminds us that many of those who saw Jesus are still alive and could presumably testify also about it!
- All four Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as well as Acts all make the claim that the risen Jesus appeared to people after the crucifixion. Critical scholars agree that all of these accounts were written in the first century and were thus written and circulating at a time when people could actually investigate the truth of the claims since eyewitnesses were still living.
- Oral creeds of the early church teach that Jesus appeared to people alive after his crucifixion. Part of the passage cited above is thought by most critical scholars to represent a creed of the early church. In other words, it was an oral saying that explained the teaching of early believers that Christians, many illiterate at the time, could memorize. If this is the case, and Paul is related this creed in 1 Corinthians, then it is likely he learned this directly from the apostles after his conversion and so this oral teaching was already circulating within several years of Jesus death and resurrection.
- Early church leaders, who knew the disciples personally, taught that the disciples claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. Clement, who knew Peter and others of the disciples, writes in a letter to the church in Corinth that the disciples had received complete “certainty caused by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Also, Irenaeus, writes that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, had learned from the apostles, particularly John, and had spoken to many people who were witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. In his letter to the church at Philippi, Polycarp writes that Paul, the apostles and others “did not love the present age, but him who died for our benefit and for our sake was raised by God.”
So what if they claimed to have seen the risen Jesus, does that make it true?
It is true that the fact that someone claims something does not make it true. After all, there are some folks who claim that the Earth is flat and that the lunar landings are a government hoax! So the fact that the disciples claimed to have seen Jesus after his resurrection does not automatically mean it is true. However, we have a good reason to trust their claim because they actually believed it and were willing to suffer and even die for it.
Now skeptics may argue that people are willing to die for religious claims all the time, but that doesn’t make them true. This is a valid argument. Many modern day Christians are persecuted for their faith and many are even killed but adherents of other religions are also willing to die for their beliefs. However, there is a big difference between a modern day Christian being willing to die for their beliefs and the disciples being willing to die for theirs. In the case of a modern day Christian, they have come to believe that Christianity is true based on the testimony of eyewitnesses like the disciples, by experiencing God working in their life, by believing in faith that Jesus is who the Bible says he is, and by seeing that Christianity does the best job of explaining life as we know it. These are all valid justifications for faith in Jesus but it is not the same as the disciples. Jesus’ disciples claimed to be eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus. This is a fact claim that is either true or false. The disciples were willing to die for something they knew for a fact to be true.
Think about it. If Jesus’ disciples all made up their claim that Jesus appeared to them, if it was some story they all conspired to lie about, it would be very unlikely that they would all be willing to suffer for a lie and even to be killed for it. What person, let alone a whole group of people, would willingly and gladly suffer persecution and death for something they new to be untrue? I cannot think of any examples.
Therefore, we can have even more confidence in the claims of Jesus’ disciples that they had seen Jesus alive after his crucifixion because they were willing to die for this claim. They were willing to die, not merely because they believed it was true but because they knew for a fact that it was true.
While many skeptics disbelieve the resurrection of Jesus, the fact is that most New Testament scholars, both Christians and non-Christians, accept as fact that the disciples claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. Not only did they claim to have seen Jesus alive, but they were willing to die for this claim. Common sense should help us see that it would be highly unlikely that this group of people would die for something they knew to be a lie and so the most logical explanation is that they knew it to be true.
Jesus rose from the dead!
Appearances of the Resurrected Jesus to Individuals (taken from The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, pg 250)
- Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9, John 20:14)
- Women returning from the tomb (Matthew 28:9,10)
- Later that same day to Peter (Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:5)
- Disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-33)
- Apostles without Thomas (Luke 24:36-43, John 20:19-24)
- Apostles with Thomas (John 20:26-29)
- The seven by the Lake of Tiberias (John 21:1-23)
- More than 500 people in Galilee (1 Corinthians 15:6)
- James, Jesus’ half-brother (1 Corinthians 15:7)
- The eleven apostles (Matthew 28:16-20, Mark 16:14-20, Luke 24:33-52, Acts 1:3-12)
- At the ascension (Acts 1:3-12)
- Paul (Acts 9:3-6, 1 Corinthians 15:8)
- Stephen (Acts 7:55)
- Paul in the temple (Acts 22:17-21, 23:11)
- John on Patmos (Revelation 1:10-19)