The resurrection of Jesus – a reason to believe?

Garden tomb, Jerusalem

The resurrection is obviously a central part of christian belief – some say it is the amazing event that explains everything else, others that it is an impossible to believe event.

So is it something that makes christianity harder to believe, or easier?

Evidence according to the historians

Christians and non-christians have come to widely differing conclusions about the truth of the resurrection. Historians may be no different, but they try at least to get a good understanding of whatever historical facts they can. It turns out that a majority of historians, believers or not, agree on a few basic facts:

  1. Jesus was executed and placed in a tomb near Jerusalem.
  2. His tomb was later found to be empty.
  3. His disciples, and Paul, had visionary experiences of Jesus after his death.
  4. The disciples believed Jesus had been resurrected right from the very early days of the christian movement.
  5. This belief was a major motivation in the spread of christianity.

These basic facts don’t prove Jesus really was resurrected, but they provide the basic evidence on which arguments can be built.

Historical explanations

If the resurrection occurred, it explains the evidence we have, including the early christians’ belief in Jesus as divine and their willingness to endure persecution to spread the message about him. If it didn’t occur, then other explanations of the facts must be found.

NT Wright on the resurrection

Historian NT Wright argues that the Jews readily accepted the idea of ghosts or angels of the dead, but had no concept of resurrection of the body except at some future time when Israel would be freed from bondage to Rome and the faithful martyrs vindicated. With Israel still in bondage to Rome and Jesus crucified by the hated Romans, no-one was going to believe in Jesus as the Messiah bringing in the new age of the kingdom of God – unless he had truly risen. If he hadn’t risen, they’d have explained things in other ways.

Naturalistic explanations

Naturalistic explanations include:

  1. The tomb wasn’t really empty, or else there was no tomb and Jesus’ body was disposed of some other way, the disciples had visions or hallucinations due to grief and disappointment, and this was strong enough to motivate them; or
  2. the disciples made the story up later when no-one could really check the facts; or
  3. the whole thing was a much later legend that grew up in the next generation.

#1 is the most common view today. Few believe the disciples invented the story and scholars are now generally sure that Jesus’ followers believed he had been resurrected right from the beginning. Bart Ehrman: For it is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.

But the difficulties with all three alternatives lead some scholars to simply say they don’t know what happened.

Problems with the text

The resurrection stories in the New Testament appear to be inconsistent. Some details vary (which women visited the tomb on Sunday morning? who did they see there?) and it is hard to harmonise the accounts. Scholars accept that while some details vary, the central facts are the same, and so the different accounts lend weight to those central facts. Nevertheless, the difficulties with the text and the uncertainties about whether these are eyewitness accounts have become perhaps the main reasons given to reject the stories as true.

However in an engrossing and brilliant book (Easter Enigma, 1992), Oxford scholar John Wenham has shown that the accounts can be harmonised into a plausible narrative. His key insight is that each account tells the story from the perspective of different eyewitnesses who were based in different locations at the time, and so wrote the facts that they had seen. Scholars haven’t generally taken up John’s ideas, but they show that most of the apparent problems can be satisfactorily explained

Natural vs supernatural

One objection often raised against the resurrection is that science has shown it is impossible. Dead men don’t come back to life.

But science can only show what normally happens, and christians agree – dead men don’t normally come back to life. But, christians say, this isn’t a normal case – this is a miracle done by the God who created the universe.

In the end, we can either accept the possibility of the supernatural and a miracle, or we cannot. The question is, if a person is agnostic about the supernatural, is the historical evidence enough to convince them that God exists and did this miracle?

Assessing the evidence

So how does the evidence stack up? Many christians believe it and many non-christians don’t – that’s not news. But here are a few assessments which carry a little more weight (to me at any rate):

Frank Morison

Frank Morison was the pseudonym for Albert Henry Ross, an English advertising agent and freelance writer who was sceptical of the resurrection (back almost a century ago). Treating the gospel texts as ordinary historical documents, he investigated the resurrection and came to believe it occurred.

Jeffery Lowder

Jeffery Lowder is an atheist who began the Secular web. He is as fair-minded a person as you’ll find on the internet and I generally respect what he writes, even if I disagree. He reviewed the evidence or the resurrection and concluded: On the basis of the available evidence (and the arguments I’ve seen), I conclude that a rational person may accept or reject the resurrection.

Christian vs atheist debates

Philosopher WL Craig has engaged in many public debates with atheists, and is generally regarded as very successful. One of his standard arguments is one for the resurrection, based on the “minimal facts” outlined at the beginning of this post. Philosopher Gary Habermas debated former atheist philosopher Antony Flew several times, both publicly and privately (they were good friends) over 20 years. In the first formal debate, Habermas was judged to have won. Flew later wrote that the resurrection was the best attested miracle claim in history.

None of this proves anything, but it does illustrate that believing the resurrection isn’t silly and can lead people to change their view of christianity..

So, does the resurrection story make christianity harder to believe, or easier?

I have never used the resurrection as an argument for the existence of God or the truth of Jesus as his “son”. I defend its truth as something that is easy to believe if we believe in Jesus. But the evidence for the resurrection seems stronger to me now than it used to, thanks to NT Wright, Habermas & Craig, and John Wenham.

I now think it is clear that the argument for the historicity of the resurrection is strong enough to stand on its own. It won’t convince anyone who is strongly committed to naturalism and won’t accept the possibility of miracles, but I think for most people it adds to the evidence that Jesus was the “son of God”.

Further reading

I have recently updated the webpage on the resurrection, and you’ll find further references there.

Relevant to this post are:

Picture: Garden tomb, Jerusalem on Wikimedia Commons. I don’t suppose it is very likely that this is actually the tomb of Jesus, but perhaps it looked something like this.


  1. Hi

    Here is Baha’is version of interpretation of the resurrection of Christ.

    The resurrections of the Divine Manifestations are not of the body. All Their states, Their conditions, Their acts, the things They have established, Their teachings, Their expression, Their parables and Their instructions have a spiritual and divine signification, and have no connection with material things. For example, there is the subject of Christ’s coming fro heaven: it is clearly stated in may places in the Gospel that the Son of man came from heaven, He is in heaven, and He will go to heaven. so in chapter 6, verse 38, of the Gospel of John it is written: “For I came down from heaven”; and also in verse 42 we find: “And they said, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven?” Also in John, chapter 3, verse 13: “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.”

    Observe that it is said, “The Son of man is in heaven,” while at that time Christ was on earth. Notice also that it is said that Christ came from heaven, though He came from the womb of Mary, and His body was born of Mary. It is clear, then, that when it is said that the Son of man is come from heaven, this has not an outward but an inward signification; it is a spiritual, not a material, fact. The meaning is that though, apparently, Christ was born from the womb of Mary, in reality He came from heaven, from the center of the Sun of Reality, from the Divine World, and the Spiritual Kingdom. And as it has become evident that Christ came from the spiritual heaven of the Divine Kingdom, therefore, His disappearance under the earth for three days has an inner signification and is not an outward fact. In the same way, His resurrection from the interior of the earth is also symbolical; it is a spiritual and divine fact, and not material; and likewise his ascension to heaven is a spiritual and not material ascension.

    Beside these explanations, it has been established and proved by science that the visible heaven is limitless area, void and empty, where innumerable stars and planets revolve.

    Therefore, we say that the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is as follows: the disciples were troubled and agitated after the martyrdom of Christ. The Reality of Christ, which signifies his teachings, His bounties, his perfections and His spiritual power, was hidden and concealed for two or three days after His Martyrdom, and was not resplendent and manifest. No, rather it was lost, for the believers were few in number and were troubled and agitated. The Cause Christ was like a lifeless body: and when after three days the disciples became assured and steadfast, and began to serve the Cause of Christ, and resolved to spread the divine teachings, putting His counsels into practice, and arising to serve Him, the Reality of Christ became resplendent and His bounty appeared; His religion found life; His teachings and His admonitions became evident and visible. In other words, the Cause of Christ was like a lifeless body until the life and the bounty of the Holy Spirit surrounded it.

    Such is the meaning of the resurrection of Christ, and this was a true resurrection. But as the clergy have neither understood the meaning of the Gospels nor comprehended the symbols, therefore, it has been said that religion is in contradiction to science, and science in opposition to religion, as, for example, this subject of the ascension of Christ with an elemental body to the visible heaven is contrary to the science of mathematics. But when the truth of this subject becomes clear, and the symbol is explained, science in no way contradicts it; but, on the contrary, science and the intelligence affirm it. (Some Answered Questions, page 103 -105).

  2. As a believer in the resurrection, I have to concede the point made so brilliantly and humorously by Thomas Paine when he discusses the meaning of “revelation,” into which category the resurrection falls. Paine’s point is that there can only be a revelation to the person to whom it was given, who witnessed it personally. For all other believers, the belief is in the account of the event that has been told second hand–in other words, hearsay. Of course, this does not mean that such evidence is not worthy of belief. Courts admit hearsay evidence all the time if covered by one of many exceptions to the doctrine. I think we are on solid ground in arguing that something extraordinary had to have happened to turn defeated and depressed disciples into confident champions of the ultimate truth and triumph of Jesus, men and women on fire with a new faith and ready to die for it. But that’s as far as reason can really take us, especially in light of the great disparity in the various accounts of the resurrection event, whatever it was to those who experienced it first hand.

  3. Hi Ahmad, thanks for outlining what Baha’is believe. Baha’i is generally considered to have grown out of Islam, so it is perhaps not surprising that they hold some of the views you say.

    But I must say I find what you say very difficult to understand, let alone believe. The passages in John you quote don’t say what you claim – they make very clear that John was describing the divine son of God who “came down” to earth, and then “went back” to heaven. Paul in some letters says the same thing very clearly.

    Hi Newton, I think I pretty much agree with what you say here. Thanks.

  4. Honestly, I would love to believe it happened as generally believed by conservative Christians (although one must admit the accounts of the event and post-resurrection appearances are not exactly straightforward.) The question remains why we would be willing to suspend belief in the regularity of nature here but not, say, for belief that Muhammad ascended to Heaven from the site of the Dome of the Rock.

    In truth the gospel story from start to finish is filled with the miraculous. But if one can convince himself the miraculous is real, I suppose that is not a problem – except for why one miraculous narrative is acceptable and others (Islam, Mormonism, etc. ) aren’t.

    And then there is my theory: that God does somehow work behind the scenes to communicate with us in many ways – not necessarily by overriding the laws of nature but maybe by working through deeper laws of nature beyond our comprehension. And God probably always has.What man has done with these divine revelations is another matter altogether. Every tradition probably has a mingling of truth and error. I feel I am mostly a Unitarian when it come to God and religion and far from a fundamentalist.

  5. Hi unkleE,

    Thanks for the comment. A close reading of your comment where you said “John was describing the divine son of God who “came down” to earth, and then “went back” to heaven” is the same as my writing above. Jesus in reality didn’t “come down” from heaven but he was born of Mary. This means that the language of the scripture sometimes shouldn’t be understood literally because a literal reading of the scripture does not make sense. That was one of the reason the Jews didn’t accept Jesus claim as the promised messiah because they wanted the messiah to have come from heaven.

    I agree with Doug B as well, if one should accept one miraculous claim than all claims of miracle by other tradition should be accepted too (like Brahma, Islam, Buddhism and Krishna). Paine on his famous book “the Age of Reason” claims that the entire bible is written out of mythology because myth making was a common practice on those stage of age. Newton has also made mention some of his claim about miracle.

    I think, Jesus greatest miracle is Christianity itself because it is impossible for anyone who was killed on the Cross to conquer the very empire who hanged him 300 years later. This has never happened before in written human history. We have Socrates and other accounts as well who was killed for their teachings or view points but have no followers at all let alone conquering the Greek empire. There have been numerous kings and kingdoms prided themselves for being christian and we have almost two billion people in the world who in one way or another carry his name. I believe in this sort of miracle for Jesus, Mohammad and Bahaullah rather than the story of resurrection of Jesus. Thanks once again.

  6. Hi Doug, I don’t see it as a suspension of belief in the regularity of nature.

    Consider human causality. The physical flow of events is going on all around me. But if I choose to do something (e.g. start a fire in my filing cabinet), the physical flow of events is interrupted by that action, but then it adjusts to the new circumstances and the physical flow of events continues. The laws aren’t broken by my action.

    (I realise a determinist will say that my action was part of the physical flow of events, but let’s believe in genuine choice for a moment.)

    Now if I can make that choice and affect the flow of events, surely God can do that too!? Take a virgin birth. God could interfere to make a sperm or a fertilised egg form in a girl. Once he does so, the physical flow of events continues and the girl goes through pregnancy and birth.

    The laws describe what happens given the initial conditions. They don’t preclude a choice to change those initial conditions.

    I don’t think christian miracle claims should be treated any different to other claims. If the evidence points to them, believe them, if the evidence doesn’t, remain sceptical.

    I have suggested there is good historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I haven’t seen any such evidence for the winged horse.

    Thanks for your comment. There’s always something to think about!

  7. Hi Ahmad, thanks for your further comments. I don’t think we are going to agree on this. Your belief teaches something very different to mine.

    But I have to say that historians and other scholars don’t interpret the New Testament to mean what you say. John’s gospel was making the very strong point that Jesus was a real man but he was also the divine son of God. If your belief teaches differently, I won’t argue with you, but I believe the plain meaning stands quite clearly.


  8. Hello unkleE,

    Jesus was not the only person resurrected in the Bible. There are 9 other Resurrection Stories . Why is Jesus’ Resurrection any more significant than the other 9 ?

    Widow of Zarephath’s son (I Ki 17:17-24) raised by Elijah
    Shunamite’s son (II Ki 4:20-37) raised by Elisha
    Man tossed into Elisha’s tomb (II Ki 13:21) raised by God’s Spirit
    Widow of Nain’s son (Lk 7:11-16) raised by Jesus
    Synagogue ruler Jairus’ 12-year-old daughter (Mk 5:35-43) raised by Jesus
    Lazarus (Jn 11:1-44) raised by Jesus
    Tabitha also known as Dorcas (Acts 9:36-41) raised by Peter
    Eutychus (Acts 20:7-12) raised by Paul
    Men raised upon Jesus’ death (Mt 27:51-53) raised by God
    Jesus’ Resurrection (Mk 16:1-11) raised by God

  9. One big difference Ken. None of them was the son of God. That leads to another big difference. They all were returned to this life, to die again; Jesus rose as the first-born into a new life, never to die again. And so will we if we choose him.

  10. Hi unkleE. I think your response to ken pretty much sums up the problem as I see it. The literal resurrection of Jesus is credible only if one accepts that Jesus was the Son of God in the unique way conservative Christians accept it.

    The conservative Christian has much invested in the literal resurrection of Jesus for on this, following Paul, he pins his hopes of a future life. However, many religious folks throughout history have not pinned their hopes of a postmortem existence on resurrection. I don’t find it necessary but do find it problematic.

    I feel that using the literal resurrection of Jesus as described in the gospels as “evidence” is a theological case. Apart from certain presuppositions it can’t take everyone where the conservative Christian wants to go.

    I think that is the problem with evidentialism. Without one’s willingness to believe and accept, it’s fairly powerless.

    Perhaps the deeper spiritual truths of the universe are primarily matters of the heart and not the head. I’m not putting down evidence, but rather suggesting that evidence alone can lead one in different directions.

  11. Hi Doug, obviously we see this differently. I don’t think the resurrection needs Jesus as son of God to believe it, but to explain why it is different. The belief is based on the historical evidence. Like I said in the post, I never used to see the resurrection as evidence for christianity, but as part of the package, so I know how you feel. But I have found some recent ideas that raise its credibility as evidence of God (in my opinion). But I think other evidence is still more useful in continuing to convince me.

    I’m sure you are right, that heart as well as head are involved in all this. I feel many people think they are 100% evidence-based, but they are not. They, like me and all of us, are affected by our assumptions, wishes and fears. In fact psychologist Jonathan Haidt reckons we all choose intuitively and then rationalise our choice, though I’m not sure if I believe it is that clearcut.

  12. This discussion has wandered a bit off point from the original article, but that’s fine by me, since so many religious subjects are interrelated and bleed into one another as a matter of course. What, exactly, does it mean to believe in the resurrection? That it happened, or what it means? I’ve already expressed my views on the former, so let me take a shot at the latter.

    I think there were two major mistakes made early on. The first, reflected in Doug B’s comment above, was that the resurrection had to happen or the entire Christian faith was in vain (Paul’s take). The second mistake was that the resurrection was necessary to permit God to forgive sinners. My belief in Jesus as the Son of God (and the definition of that term is for another day) does not rest on what happened after his death but on what happened before it. When I ponder in my head and my heart the transcendent wisdom and beauty of the core teachings of Jesus reflected in the consistent sayings and parables, I am struck by that same sense of unique power and authority that prompted his contemporaries to say in stunned amazement, “No man ever spoke like this.” And one of those core teachings, the parable of the prodigal son, clearly conveys not only the ability but the eagerness of God to forgive all who repent , who turn around begin to move in the right direction.

    This is just one example of this core teaching, which has to do with God’s “Abba” nature, a teaching repeatedly reflected in other words and deeds of Jesus. Did not Jesus directly forgive the sins of many BEFORE he was put to death?

    So if Jesus’ death and resurrection are not themselves the keys to salvation, what are they? For me, they are the final and unmistakable signs of his Sonship to those to whom the signs were given and who would begin the Jesus movement, which is the reason we’re having this discussion. The might of Imperial Rome put Jesus on the cross and in the tomb. The finger of God took him out and showed us the paucity of earthly power and glory of eternal life (another core point of Jesus’ teaching).

    And let me say this unequivocally in flat contradiction to Paul and to what has come to be orthodox Christian belief. If tomorrow they found the buried bones of Jesus with absolute certainty (impossible at this point, of course, without a DNA sample for comparison), he would remain my Lord and Master, my Pattern and Redeemer (to use the words of Kierkegaard’s famous prayer), because WHO he was showed WHAT he was far more profoundly than any conflicting second-hand report about how and to whom he appeared after his death. Throughout the gospels, people came to believe in Jesus, some to the extent of giving up everything and following him, due to only a brief encounter with him a couple of years before the cross.

    If you extrapolate from these two early mistakes that were made in shaping the message of Christianity, much of what went wrong over the next two thousand years begins to make sense. I won’t take advantage of this wonderful form by injecting self-promotion, but if unkleE doesn’t mind, I can point readers to a thoroughly synoptic gospel, recently published on the Kindle, which attempts to make these and other corrections in a manner similar to and respectful of the canonical accounts of “the greatest story ever told.”

  13. Hi Newton, thanks for some interesting discussion. I think you are right to point out that how we interpret the resurrection (or at least belief in the resurrection) will depend on what we think Jesus was aiming to achieve, or God was aiming to achieve through him.

    I believe God’s purposes can only ever be known approximately by us, because are incapable of full understanding of God. Therefore I accept several explanations of the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection as all contributing something to a larger truth. So I can agree with the positive things you say about the purposes, but I don’t they negate the other purposes which you reject or downplay. I agree with you that Jesus was a person worth following even if he didn’t turn out to be the son of God or to have been resurrected.

    But I still think that he had to die to redeem – and non-believing historians Michael Grant and Maurice Casey both believe on historical evidence that Jesus thought this too. So I still agree with Paul that without the resurrection, my belief in Jesus would be very different, and he may not have been a saviour at all.

    So my response to your interesting thoughts is to say, yes, but also … Thanks.

  14. According to the Bible, how many Old Testament prophets raised people from the dead? Answer: Two. Elijah and Elisha.

    That’s it. And they only did it three times. So the act of raising someone from the dead would have been seen as a very, very big deal. It was not like healing someone of a disease or casting out demons. Lots of people, it seems, could do those miracles. Nope, raising someone from the dead was the big kahuna of all miracles!

    In the Gospel of John chapter 11, we are told that Lazarus had been dead for four days. His body was decomposing to the point that he stunk. Lazarus death and burial were very public events. His tomb was a known location. Many Jews had come to mourn with Mary and Martha and some of them were wondering why the great miracle worker, Jesus, had not come and healed his friend Lazarus; essentially blaming Jesus for letting Lazarus die.

    Let’s step back and look at the facts asserted in this passage: Only two OT prophets had raised people from the dead, and these two prophets were considered probably the two greatest Jewish prophets of all time: Elijah and Elisha. If this story is true, the supernatural powers of Jesus were on par with the supernatural powers of the greatest Jewish prophets of all time! If this event really did occur, it should have shocked the Jewish people to their very core—a new Elijah was among them! This event must have been the most shocking event to have occurred in the lives of every living Jewish man and woman on the planet. The news of this event would have spread to every Jewish community across the globe.

    And yet…Paul, a devout and highly educated Jew, says not one word about it. Not one. Not in his epistles; not in the Book of Acts. Think about that. What would be the most powerful sign to the Jews living in Asia Minor and Greece—the very people to whom Paul was preaching and attempting to convert—to support the claim that Jesus of Nazareth himself had been raised from the dead? Answer: The very public, very well documented raising from the dead of Lazarus of Bethany by Jesus!

    But nope. No mention of this great miracle by Paul. (A review of Paul’s epistles indicates that Paul seems to have known very little if anything about the historical Jesus. Read here.)

    And there is one more very, very odd thing about the Raising-of-Lazarus-from-the-Dead Miracle: the author of the Gospel of John, the very last gospel to be written, is the only gospel author to mention this amazing miracle! The authors of Mark, Matthew, and Luke say NOTHING about the miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Nothing.

    To continue reading:

  15. Hi Gary,

    I’ll ask you one question. On what basis do you say this (I have highlighted a few key words)?

    “If this event really did occur, it should have shocked the Jewish people to their very core—a new Elijah was among them! This event must have been the most shocking event to have occurred in the lives of every living Jewish man and woman on the planet. The news of this event would have spread to every Jewish community across the globe.”


  16. Happy New Year unkleE

    “Jesus was executed and placed in a tomb near Jerusalem.”

    Which tomb, unkleE ?

    1.)Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
    2.)Garden Tomb, outside the old city of Jerusalem
    3.)Talpiot Tomb, rock-cut tomb in the East Talpiot neighborhood
    4.)Roza Bal, the reputed tomb of Jesus in Kashmir
    5.)Shingō , Japan

    “The disciples believed Jesus had been resurrected right from the very early days of the christian movement.”

    Here is what “The Eleven” thought when the women told them of the empty tomb. “Luke 24: 9 When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.”

    I am not arguing the points of a historical Jesus or that he died. The rest has to be a matter of faith according to tradition don’t you think ? “According to tradition” not “According to history” is probably the most used phrase by tour guides in Israel .

  17. Hi Ken , happy New Year to you too! I’m glad you still visit occasionally.

    “Which tomb, unkleE ?”

    I have heard arguments but I have no conclusion. It has never been important since the body was only there for about 30 hours.

    “The rest has to be a matter of faith according to tradition don’t you think ?”

    I think it can be said objectively that most historical scholars accept that the tomb was known to be empty and/or Jesus’ followers had visions of him alive after his death, which led to very early belief that he had been resurrected (not on the first day, as described in the passage you quote, but within months maybe, certainly a few years). We may take those things as probable historical facts.

    What one concludes from those facts is of course a matter of faith and fact combined, as you say. But I think the evidence is strong, strong enough for several well-known christian debaters to win debates on the matter with well-known sceptics, and for respected sceptic JJ Lowder to say that one could reasonably conclude either that Jesus had been resurrected or that he hadn’t.

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