This will be my final post on Christian Apologetics for a little while. I pray your faith has been strengthened by this series of blog posts. God Bless and good reading! – Julian Pace.
Even the casual observer of the worldwide Christian church would conclude that on many issues of theology, spirituality, and practice Christians disagree, sometimes markedly so. However, this same observer would be remiss if they were to conclude as well that Christians are not united by anything at all. Indeed, whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox or Protestant all would affirm certain doctrines as essential to the Christian faith: The Trinity, Jesus as true God and true man, and of course the Resurrection of Jesus. Of these doctrines, perhaps none is more essential to the Christian faith than that of the Resurrection. Indeed, if Jesus of Nazareth is dead today then the other doctrines just mentioned are mere fantasies. While the doctrine of the Resurrection has come under heated assault almost since its’ first proclamation, the good news for the Christian is that the historical foundation for this doctrine is strong. Indeed, it will be the purpose of this article to demonstrate that the Resurrection is supported by multiple lines of historical evidence and the Christian can be confident of this event’s reality.
The truth of the Resurrection has been defended by a number of intelligent and informed Christian scholars such as William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, N.T Wright, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Many lines of evidence have been suggested by these scholars as supporting the factuality of Jesus’ Resurrection. In this article, I will focus only on three. First, it will be shown that the vast majority of New Testament scholars affirm that Jesus existed historically and died by crucifixion sometime in the early first century. Second, it will be shown that Jesus was probably given an honorable burial by Joseph of Arimathea and that the tomb he was interred in was found empty by his followers. Third, it will be shown that the early Christians almost certainly had veridical experiences of the Risen Lord.
It should first be noted that almost no professional historian of antiquity nor New Testament scholar rejects that Jesus of Nazareth existed historically and was crucified sometime in the early first century. Indeed, the much-celebrated New Testament Scholar Bart Ehrman (no friend of orthodox Christianity) says this
Despite the enormous range of opinion, there are several points on which virtually all scholars of antiquity agree. Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) in Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea
Now, it is not the position of this article that because the vast majority of scholars accept Jesus’ existence and crucifixion then it is therefore necessarily true. However, the fact that there is almost no debate on these issues in the academy does speak well for the quality of the evidence that undergirds these two important facts about Jesus of Nazareth.
The fact of Jesus of Nazareth’s existence and crucifixion are further buttressed by the fact that a strong case can be made for the basic historical reliability of the Gospels in our New Testament. Indeed, it should be noted that E.P. Sanders in his acclaimed book The Historical Figure of Jesus makes a cogent and balanced case for the Gospels being correct on at least the important details of Jesus’ life. Interestingly, Sanders still affirms their basic historical veracity despite the fact that he is quite willing to admit that the Gospels have a number of historical and methodological problems. Sanders concludes that the Gospels contain enough eyewitness accounts and were written close enough to the lifetime of Jesus for us to consider them reasonably accurate sources for the life of Jesus. Even if one is convinced that the Gospels do contain some historical errors there is simply no reason to conclude that they contain no historically accurate information about Jesus at all. Indeed, all of the Gospels were written within sixty years of Jesus’ lifetime and contain at least some eyewitness testimony. Furthermore, all of them assume Jesus’ existence and all of them record that he was crucified by the Romans. Thus, it can be reasonably stated that skepticism over the basic details of Jesus’ life, such as his existence and crucifixion, is simply unwarranted. Indeed, Bart Ehrman sums up well the weakness of the case that Jesus did not exist historically
The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. It was made up in the eighteenth century. One might as well call it a modern myth, the myth of the mythical Jesus
Indeed, the evidence for the basic details of Jesus’ life is quite strong.
The second line of evidence is more contested within the academy, though perhaps not as greatly as one might assume. Indeed, many fine critical scholars are willing to accept that Jesus of Nazareth was given an honorable burial in a tomb and that said tomb was found empty by his early followers. Indeed, there are a number of good reasons to believe that the empty tomb narrative is basically correct. Noted apologist and scholar William Lane Craig has ably defended the fact that Jesus was given an honorable burial by Joseph of Arimathea in his well-received book Reasonable Faith. Craig is convinced that the burial story recorded in the Gospels is accurate for two reasons. First, Craig demonstrates that the historical detail of Jesus being buried by Joseph of Arimathea is contained in the Gospel of Mark, this is important as the Gospel of Mark is both an early and independent source for the life of Jesus and thus Craig reasons that the burial account is probably sound. Indeed, at least some scholars are convinced that Mark was written only fifteen years after Jesus’ lifetime, thus greatly increasing the likelihood that it is a reliable source for the life of Jesus. Furthermore, Craig cites the German source critic Rudolf Pesch for further support as Pesch is convinced that the source behind the burial narrative dates to within seven years of Jesus’ lifetime.
Second, Craig is convinced that Jesus was given an honorable burial by Joseph of Arimathea because he thinks it is unlikely that the early Christian community would have invented a story about a member of the Sanhedrin showing such respect for the body, and thereby the person, of Jesus of Nazareth.  Acts 2:23, 36 and 4:10 demonstrate well the animosity the early church held towards the Sanhedrin. Indeed, Acts 2:23 records the Apostle Peter as saying “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. (NASB)” The reference to “godless men” by Peter is almost certainly a reference to the Sanhedrin and demonstrates well how poorly the early Christian community viewed this body.
The burial account by Joseph of Arimathea has received some criticism from scholars. Indeed, Bart Ehrman has suggested that the Romans would have had no reason to release Jesus’ body to Joseph of Arimathea. In fact, they preferred to let the bodies of those crucified rot as an example to would be rebels. Furthermore, Ehrman is convinced that Pontius Pilate, being the rather intractable person that he was, would not have released Jesus’ body under any circumstances. There are a number of problems with this argument. First, it simply does not deal with the evidence in favor of the burial narrative specifically enough. To very specific lines of evidence Ehrman responds with an argument that is the equivalent of “this could have possibly happened” which is not a very strong argument. Second, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the Romans may very well have bowed to Jewish pressure and allowed them to remove the bodies of those crucified on certain occasions. Particularly during Passover which was one of their most sacred festivals. Indeed, Josephus notes that Pilate upon entering Jerusalem offended Jewish sensibilities by displaying Roman effigies and standards within the city. After much Jewish agitation, Pilate removed the images. Third, we are privy to at least one example of crucifixion victims being removed from the cross due to the petition of a Jew. This Jew being Josephus when he begged the Emperor Titus to release three of his acquaintances from the cross. Titus eventually acceded to Josephus’ request.  Ehrman is a credible biblical scholar, and his critique should not be dismissed out of hand, but his objections are not strong enough to discount the basic historicity of the burial account of Jesus of Nazareth.
There is also much historical evidence in favor of the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth finding his tomb empty a few days after his death by crucifixion. Interestingly, a study done by Gary Habermas that surveyed the vast majority of the literature pertaining to the study of the Resurrection of Jesus in English, German, and French between 1975 and 2005, showed that an impressive seventy-five percent of scholars who wrote on the subject were convinced that Jesus’ followers found his tomb empty a few days after his death by crucifixion. Again, it should be noted that the argument presented here is not one in favor a majority vote deciding a historical event’s veracity. However, the fact that such a large number of scholars find the evidence in favor of the empty tomb at least credible should cause the skeptic to at least give the matter some consideration.
The discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb is recorded in a number of early sources. Not only is it recorded in the Gospel of Mark but it is also found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. The latter passage states
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (NASB)
Scholarly consensus places the writing of the 1 Corinthians sometime around C.E. 55 which is only about twelve years or so after the lifetime of Jesus. Furthermore, William Lane Craig and Dale Allison are both convinced that the passage Paul quotes here is probably the product of an early Christian writer other than himself. Thus the tradition behind this passage could date to within a couple years of Jesus’ lifetime. It should be noted that while the empty tomb is not explicitly mentioned it is strongly implied by the phrase “He was buried.”
Perhaps the most interesting detail of the Markan account of the empty tomb is that the writer of Mark’s Gospel records for us that the first witnesses to the empty tomb were women (Mark 16:1-8). While this does strike us moderns as unusual, this was truly noteworthy in first century Palestine. This is because in Jesus’ day women were not seen as reliable witnesses to an event regardless of the circumstances. If the Apostles created a legend about the tomb being empty it is unlikely that the legend would have recorded that women were the primary witnesses to the empty tomb. The fact that Mark’s Gospel records what was probably a rather embarrassing detail to the early Christian church, greatly increases the likelihood that the account is true.
Several objections to the truth of the empty tomb have been suggested. Perhaps the most popular secular explanations of the empty tomb are the Wrong-Tomb Theory, The Apparent Death Theory, and the Conspiracy Theory. The Wrong-Tomb Theory explains the empty tomb away by asserting that the disciples simply visited the wrong tomb on Easter morning. This explanation is implausible for two reasons. First, if the story of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea is true then there is no reason to believe that Jesus’ final resting place was not reasonably well known. Second, it is implausible to suggest that the Sanhedrin would have allowed the early Christian belief in the Resurrection to continue if the correct tomb could have been located and Jesus’ body put on display for all to see that he was truly dead.
Almost no one defends the Apparent Death Theory as an explanation for the empty tomb any longer though it was embraced by some people such as Friedrich Schleiermacher the great liberal theologian of the early nineteenth century. This view states that when Jesus was taken from the cross he was not yet deceased. Once laid in the tomb Jesus revived and presented himself to his disciples as the Risen Lord. This view is deeply problematic for it ignores the fact that the Romans were expert executioners who simply would not have allowed for a mistake of this magnitude. Simply put, no one who endured the entire punishment of crucifixion could have reasonably survived.
The Conspiracy Theory, like the Apparent Death Theory, has fallen on hard times lately and is simply not an explanation that critical scholars take very seriously any longer. This theory states that the early disciples stole Jesus’ body from the tomb and lied about his Resurrection. This view falls apart for the simple reason that it fails to take into account that the early Christians were willing to give their lives for their faith. Indeed, one wonders why a group of disillusioned men who just saw their beloved Rabbi die a terrible death would cook up such a conspiracy when there was so little to gain from doing so. The well-respected New Testament scholar Michael Licona says
The disciples’ willingness to suffer and die for their beliefs indicates that they certainly regarded those beliefs as true. The case is strong that they did not willfully lie about the appearances of the risen Jesus. Liars make poor martyrs. … The apostles died for holding to their own testimony that they had personally seen the risen Jesus.
Indeed, due to the fatal flaws inherent to the Conspiracy Theory, it was only embraced by a few deists in the nineteenth century. Its’ multiple flaws must indeed force us to conclude that a better explanation must be available.
The third and final line of evidence is that there are multiple accounts of many people seeing Jesus of Nazareth alive after his crucifixion. Indeed, the Gospels and the New Testament epistles provide for us multiple early and independent sources that demonstrate that many early Christians were eyewitnesses to the Risen Lord. In 1 Corinthians 15, a source that dates to within at least fifteen years of Jesus’ lifetime, the Apostle Paul mentions that Jesus was seen by “Peter”, “The Apostles”, as well as “five-hundred other Christians.” Interestingly, Paul also mentions that James, the brother of Jesus who at first rejected his claims to messiahship (Mark 3:21), saw Jesus of Nazareth alive after his crucifixion. It is almost certain historically that much of Jesus’ family rejected his ministry prior to his Resurrection as this detail is recorded in Mark which is an early source. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the early Christian church would have invented something so embarrassing. The fact that James later came to believe in Jesus must force us to conclude that some very powerful experience must have made him change his mind about his brother. Indeed, the plethora of evidence has forced the rather moderate New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders to conclude
That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgement, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know
E.P. Sanders expresses well the opinion of many New Testament scholars. Most are convinced that the early Christians had experiences of some kind that lead them to believe that Jesus was alive. However, whether these experiences were veridical or the product of hallucinations is typically where scholars diverge.
The most common response to the early Christians experiencing the Risen Lord is that they were the victims of hallucinations. However, the problem with this explanation is that early and independent sources affirm that “groups” of people were witnesses to the Risen Lord (1 Corinthians 15) and most Psychologists remain unconvinced that “groups” of people can experience the same hallucination at the same time. Furthermore, we would be justified in remaining skeptical about the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection if only some or even one of his early followers came to the conclusion that he had been resurrected. Indeed, sometimes people convince themselves of falsehoods when under serious emotional and mental pressure. However, the judgement of most New Testament scholars is that very many early Christians were convinced that they had experienced a resurrected Jesus of Nazareth. With these considerations in mind, the Hallucination hypothesis simply does not explain why groups of people were convinced they saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion.
In conclusion, the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is quite strong. Not only is there overwhelming evidence for his existence and crucifixion, a reasonable case can be made that he was given an honorable burial by Joseph of Arimathea, his tomb was found empty by his followers, and that they saw him alive after his crucifixion. With these facts in mind, Christians should not shy away from skeptics when they ask tough questions about the Christian faith. The evidence is strongly in favor of Jesus rising again on the third day and we should not be afraid to affirm his resurrection as a historical reality. Furthermore, as Christians we should readily take comfort in the truth that our own resurrection has been rendered certain because Jesus’ resurrection has been confirmed by the historical evidence as well as the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. With all this in mind, perhaps the only thing left to say would have to be “Even so come, Lord Jesus come! (Rev 22:20)”
 Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: the historical argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.12
 E.P. Sanders, The historical figure of Jesus. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. 57
 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the eyewitnesses: The Gospels as eyewitness testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017.
Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: the historical argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. 96
 John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000.
 William Lane Craig, Reasonable faith: Christian truth and apologetics. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008. 362
 Ibid, 364.
 Josephus, Jewish War 2.9, 2.4
 Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus, 76.
 Gary R. Habermas, “Resurrection Research From 1975 To The Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?” Journal For The Study Of The Historical Jesus3.2 (2005): 135-53. 141.
 Craig, Reasonable faith, 365.
 Ibid, 367.
 Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: a new historiographical approach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010. 370.
 Craig, Reasonable faith, 381.
 Sanders, The Historical figure of Jesus, 280
 Gary R. Habermas, “Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: Hallucination.” http://www.equip.org. Accessed August 10, 2017. http://www.equip.org/article/explaining-away-jesus-resurrection-hallucination/.
 Craig, Reasonable faith, 392.
Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: the historical argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.
Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the eyewitnesses: The Gospels as eyewitness testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017.
Craig, William Lane. Reasonable faith: Christian truth and apologetics. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008. 362.
Geisler, Norman L. Systematic theology. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2002.
Habermas, Gary R.”Resurrection Research From 1975 To The Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?” Journal For The Study Of The Historical Jesus3.2 (2005): 135-53.
Licona, Michael R. The resurrection of Jesus: a new historiographical approach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010. 370.
Sanders, E.P. The historical figure of Jesus. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Robinson, John A.T. Redating the New Testament. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000.