Jesus: What is the circumstantial evidence for Jesus’ resurrection?

Jesus: What is the circumstantial evidence for Jesus’ resurrection?

Effects have causes. Jesus’ resurrection is no exception, as is evident by eight effects caused by it. Together, they are compelling circumstantial evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Further, for those wanting to deny Jesus’ resurrection, the burden of proof remains on them to account for these multiple effects with a reasonable cause. Craig explains, “Anyone who denies this explanation is rationally obligated to produce a more plausible cause of Jesus’ resurrection and to explain how it happened.”1 He goes on to assert, “The conclusion that God raised Him up is virtually inescapable. Only a sterile, academic skepticism resists this inevitable inference.”2

1) Jesus’ disciples were transformed. Prior to the resurrection, his disciples were timid and fearful, even hiding when Jesus appeared to them.3 Following the resurrection, however, they were all transformed into bold witnesses to what they had seen and heard, even to the point of dying in shame and poverty for their convictions, including Peter. Regarding the apostles’ eyewitness testimony to Jesus’ resurrection, Simon Greenleaf, professor of law at Harvard University and a world-renowned scholar on the rules of legal evidence, said that it was “impossible that they could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually risen from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certainly as they knew any other fact.”4 Effects have causes. Jesus’ resurrection is no exception, as is evident by eight effects caused by it. Together, they are compelling circumstantial evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Today we examine reasons two and three.


2) Jesus’ disciples remained loyal to Jesus as their victorious Messiah. Modern-day “messiahs” include, for example, politicians who propose to save and deliver us from a terrible fate such as terrorism, poverty, or unreasonable taxation. Supporters flock around their messiah in hopes that he will deliver on his promise to make their dreams come true. However, when a messiah fails to deliver as promised, his followers either abandon both the cause and the messiah, or they retain the cause and abandon the messiah to instead pursue another messiah. Either way, a failed messiah is a forgotten messiah. However, Jesus’ disciples did not abandon their cause of forgiven sin and life with God or their devotion to Jesus as their victorious Messiah. Furthermore, their devotion to both their cause and Messiah grew in numbers and passionate devotion. They endured widespread persecution and even martyrdom, which would have been unthinkable had Jesus merely died and failed to rise as he promised he would. On this point, the historian Kenneth Scott Latourette has said: It was the conviction of the resurrection of Jesus which lifted his followers out of the despair into which his death had cast them and which led to the perpetuation of the movement begun by him. But for their profound belief that the crucified had risen from the dead and that they had seen him and talked with him, the death of Jesus and even Jesus himself would probably have been all but forgotten.5


3) The disciples had exemplary character. To claim that the disciples preached obvious lies and deluded people into dying for the world’s greatest farce, one would have to first find credible evidence to challenge the character of the disciples. Also, these men were devout Jews who knew that if they worshiped a false god and encouraged others to do the same, they would be sentenced by God to the fires of eternal hell for violating the first two commandments. Lastly, does not such egregious lying conflict with the character of men and women who gave their lives to feeding the poor, caring for widows and orphans, and helping the hurting and needy?


4) Worship changed. The early church stopped worshiping on Saturday, as Jews had for thousands of years, and suddenly began worshiping on Sunday in memory of Jesus’ Sunday resurrection.6 The Sabbath was so sacred to the Jews that they would not have ceased to obey one of the Ten Commandments unless Jesus had resurrected in fulfillment of their Old Testament Scriptures. Yet, by the end of the first century, Sunday was called “the Lord’s Day.”7 Not only did the day of worship change after the resurrection of Jesus, but so did the object of worship. Considering that one of the Ten Commandments also forbids the worship of false gods, it is impossible to conceive of devout Jews simply worshiping Jesus as the one true God without the proof of Jesus’ resurrection. According to even non-Christian historians, multitudes began worshiping Jesus as the one true God after his resurrection. For example, Lucian of Samosata was a non-Christian Assyrian-Roman satirist who, around AD 170, wrote: The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . . . You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains their contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.8 Additionally, the early church rejected the observances of the law because they saw it as having been fulfilled in Jesus; thus, the law was no longer binding upon them in the same way as it had been for over a thousand years. This was a cataclysmic shift in belief that was only considered possible because a new epoch had been ushered in by the resurrection of Jesus. Lastly, God’s people welcomed the sacraments of baptism and communion into their worship of Jesus as God. In baptism they remembered Jesus’ resurrection in their place for their salvation and anticipated their personal future resurrection. In communion the early Christians remembered Jesus’ death in their place for their sins.


5) Women discovered the empty tomb. The women who discovered the tomb were mentioned by name, were well known in the early church, and could have easily been questioned to confirm their findings if they were untrue.9 Moreover, since the testimony of women was not respected in that culture, it would have been more likely for men to report discovering the empty tomb if the account was fictitious and an attempt were being made to concoct a credible lie about Jesus’ resurrection. Therefore, the fact that women are said to have been the first to arrive at Jesus’ empty tomb is confirmation that the account of Scripture is factual, not contrived.

6) The entirety of early church preaching was centered on the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection. If the empty tomb were not a widely accepted fact, the disciples would have reasoned with the skeptics of their day to defend the central issue of their faith. Instead, we see the debate occurring not about whether the tomb was empty, but why it was empty.10 Also, nowhere in the preaching of the early church was the empty tomb explicitly defended, for the simple reason that it was widely known as an agreed-upon fact. Furthermore, a reading of the book of Acts shows that on virtually every occasion that preaching and teaching occurred, the resurrection of Jesus from death was the central truth being communicated because it had changed human history and could not be ignored. Jesus’ resurrection appears in twelve of the twenty-eight chapters in Acts, which records the history of the early church.

7)Jesus’ tomb was not enshrined. Craig says, “It was customary in Judaism for the tomb of a prophet or holy man to be preserved or venerated as a shrine. This was so because the bones of the prophet lay in the tomb and imparted to the site its religious values. If the remains were not there, then the grave would lose its significance as a shrine.”11 Of the four major world religions based upon a founder as opposed to a system of ideas, only Christianity claims that the tomb of its founder is empty. Judaism looks back to Abraham, who died almost four thousand years ago, and still cares for his grave as a holy site at Hebron. Thousands visit Buddha’s tomb in India every year. Islam founder Mohammed died on June 8, 632, and his tomb in Medina is visited by millions of people every year. Additionally, Yamauchi has discovered evidence that the tombs of at least fifty prophets or other religious figures were enshrined as places of worship and veneration in Palestine around the same time as Jesus’death.12 Yet, according to James D. G. Dunn, there is “absolutely no trace” of any veneration at Jesus’ tomb. 13 The obvious reason for this lack of veneration is that Jesus was not buried but instead resurrected.

8)Christianity exploded on the earth and a few billion people today claim to be Christians. On the same day, in the same place, and in the same way, two other men died, one on Jesus’ left and one on his right. Despite the similarities, we do not know the names of these men, and billions of people do not worship them as God. Why? Because they remained dead and Jesus alone rose from death and ascended into heaven, leaving the Christian church in his wake. On this point, C. F.D. Moule of Cambridge University says, “The birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church . . . remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the Church itself.”14

Do you personally know people who have experienced radical transformation as a result of coming to believe that Jesus is God who died and rose for their sin?

1William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 134.
3John 20:19.
4Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists: The Gospels Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1995), 32.
5Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, 7 vols., The First Five Centuries (New York: Harper, 1937), 1:59.
6Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1–2.
7Rev. 1:10.
8Lucian, “The Death of Peregrine,” in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, trans. H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, vol. 4 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949), 11–13. Also see Pliny, Letters, trans. William Melmoth, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935), 10.96.
9Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1.
10Murray J. Harris, Raised Immortal: Resurrection and Immortality in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 40.
11Craig, “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” 152.
12Yamauchi, “Easter: Myth, Hallucination, or History?” 4–7.
13James D. G. Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 67–68.
14C. F. D. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1967), 13, emphasis in original.