It stands as the pivotal event in human history. It undergirds and validates the claims Jesus Christ made about Himself. It is the basis for the hope of the Gospel.
And despite relentless efforts by skeptics to dismantle it, the resurrection of Jesus continues to reverberate across generations and cultures.
Many skeptics have tried to put it to rest by avoiding it, dismissing it as hallucination or deceit, or explaining it away as legend run amok. Yet when the evidence is faced squarely, it towers above its challengers. As Simon Greenleaf, an expert in legal evidence as the Royall Professor of Law at Harvard in the early 19th century, put it: “A person who rejects Christ may choose to say that [he does] not accept it; he may not choose to say there is not enough evidence.”
Gary Habermas, distinguished professor of apologetics and philosophy at Liberty University, has written or co-authored more than 20 books dealing with the resurrection. He says the arguments he hears against it are typically old ones, repackaged and recirculated.
Skeptics may find novel ways to pick at some questions at the periphery of the resurrection debate, but “there is not a new view” about the central facts that leaves faithful scholars scratching their heads, he says. What is often left after the evidence is laid out, Habermas notes, are underlying emotional reasons why skeptics—trained and untrained—persist in their refusal to believe. The claims of the Gospel hit at a visceral level.
The Gospel accounts make clear that the Sunday following Jesus’ crucifixion was unlike any other. On that first day of the Jewish week, “an angel of the Lord” appeared “like lightning” and with clothing “white as snow,” rolling the stone away from Jesus’ tomb and causing the earth to quake and the Roman guards to “become like dead men” out of fear (Matthew 28:2-4).
When Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome arrived at the tomb early that morning to anoint the Lord’s body, they discovered the stone was rolled away (Mark 16:1-4). As Mary Magdalene ran to tell Peter and John what had happened, angels appeared to Salome and the other Mary, explaining that Jesus had risen, as He had said He would, and inviting them to see where the body had lain (Matthew 28:5-6; Mark 16:5-6).
Later, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and the other women, then to Peter and others. Over 40 days, Jesus continued appearing to His followers, even inviting Thomas, who had voiced his disbelief that Jesus was alive, to see and touch his scars (John 20:26-28). Jesus, appearing to Peter and some other disciples along the Sea of Galilee, cooked breakfast for them using hot coals and the fish they had just caught (John 21:1-10).
Luke and Paul give bold perspective on these post-resurrection appearances. We see that Jesus “presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3, NKJV). And in 1 Corinthians 15—an early creed, scholars say—Paul recounts Jesus’ early appearances to His closest followers, adding that “He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.”
Habermas notes that the frequent objections to the resurrection story can be counted on one hand. The “swoon theory”—the belief that Jesus somehow survived his scourging and crucifixion—is still trotted out in popular literature but not seriously argued by scholars. Some say the disciples bribed the Roman guards and stole the body of Jesus. Some have even suggested the followers of Jesus had hallucinations and only thought they had encountered Him.
Muslims, who regard Jesus as a prophet but not God, discount the resurrection because they don’t believe He was crucified. They have argued replacement theories—that because God would not have allowed Jesus to be executed, He replaced Him with Judas Iscariot or someone else on the cross.
Peel back the layers of common objections, and one will find a nearly universal tendency to resist the cross and a resurrected Christ because it is deeply offensive, and personal, to fallen humanity. Our natural, sinful bent is toward pride and setting our own course in life. Apart from conversion, we are at “enmity” with God and His Lordship (Romans 8:7).
Habermas’ debates with his longtime friend Antony Flew, who was once considered the world’s leading philosophical atheist, illustrate the point. When the two held their first debate in 1985, Flew leaned heavily on the theory that the disciples merely hallucinated that Jesus had risen. Over time, Flew abandoned that argument (experts agree that people don’t hallucinate in groups, much less in multiple groups over 40 days) in favor of objecting that there simply wasn’t enough evidence for the resurrection. Flew had grown up in a Christian home with a father who was a pastor.
“I called him about every month and talked to him, and he wrote me dozens of letters,” Habermas recalls.
To Habermas’ knowledge, Flew never professed Christ, though he eventually abandoned his atheism before his death in 2010.
“I think it’s probably that emotional thing” that held Flew back from making a commitment to Christ, Habermas says. “Sort of like saying, ‘If I believe in the resurrection, then what keeps me from becoming a Christian?’ I think that tore him up.”
Indeed, Jesus Himself warned would-be followers to count the cost of following Him.
Abdu Murray knows this all too well. Murray, North America director for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, a lawyer and a former Shiite Muslim, grew up outside Detroit with many friends who had nominal Christian beliefs.
“I thought Islam was true and people should believe true things and not false things, so I would engage in discussions with anybody who would listen. … Is there a God? Who is He? What does He want from us? And I thought Islam had the answers for that.”
Over time, Murray studied enough to debate Christians over doctrines he viewed as blasphemous, such as the Trinity and the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. But along the way, a few Christians challenged his thinking as well, prompting him to read the Bible.
For nine years, including his time as an undergrad student and during law school at the University of Michigan, Murray put his beliefs and those of the Bible to the test in what he calls a “concerted, very dogged search.”
He read volumes of books and articles. He even pored over The Testimony of The Evangelists, the book that Harvard’s Greenleaf wrote in recounting the evidence he had gathered in trying to disprove the resurrection, only to be converted himself.
Murray came to believe the resurrection accounts were true, but it took much longer for him to surrender his life to Christ.
“I didn’t want to believe the evidence for the resurrection because if I did, it would change who I was,” Murray says. “Everything about me would change, and I wanted to have no part of that. I wasn’t ready for that. So I had intellectually assented to these truths, but I hadn’t embraced them as true.
“I often put it this way: The reason it took me nine years is not that the answers were hard to find. I actually found them fairly early. I wrestled with them for years. The answers aren’t hard to find, but they are hard to accept. And I think that’s true not just of Muslims. I think it’s true of anybody, quite frankly.”
Habermas has made the study of the resurrection his life’s work. He says he has begun work on a lengthy, three-volume magnum opus on evidence for the resurrection.
“How many facts do you need to believe that America won the Revolutionary War? I can give you 21 historical evidences for why the tomb of Jesus was empty that Sunday morning. The most common objection to the resurrection is not that there’s not enough evidence. The most common objection is, ‘I don’t like it.’”
For those who reject the claims of Christ for emotional reasons, Habermas says that Christian love and kindness must be shown before most people are even ready to deal honestly with evidence.
But for those who do embrace Jesus Christ, the resurrection has broad ramifications.
Most of all, it offers a foretaste of things to come.
“When the disciples saw Jesus on Easter Sunday, they saw walking, talking eternal life,” Habermas says. “The disciples saw Heaven for 40 days and experienced the fellowship of Christ for 40 days—or to say it in another way, for 40 days, Heaven broke into earth.”