Evidence for the Resurrection (John 20:1-28)
Evidence for the Resurrection
Now very early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been moved away from the entrance. So she went running to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Then Peter and the other disciple set out to go to the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down and saw the strips of linen cloth lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who had been following him, arrived and went right into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen cloth lying there, and the face cloth, which had been around Jesus’ head, not lying with the strips of linen cloth but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, came in, and he saw and believed. (For they did not yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.) So the disciples went back to their homes. But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. As she wept, she bent down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary replied, “They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have put him!” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Because she thought he was the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni” (which means Teacher). Jesus replied, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” Mary Magdalene came and informed the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them what Jesus had said to her. On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the disciples had gathered together and locked the doors of the place because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.” And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the wounds from the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the wounds from the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe it!” Eight days later the disciples were again together in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and examine my hands. Extend your hand and put it into my side. Do not continue in your unbelief, but believe.” Thomas replied to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are the people who have not seen and yet have believed.”
John 20:1-28 (NET)
As we celebrate the resurrection, it is important to ask ourselves, “Why is it important and what are evidences that it really happened?” Its importance is demonstrated throughout the New Testament. The Gospels give testimony to the resurrection. In Acts, the apostles proclaim it throughout the world. The Epistles assume a resurrected, ruling Christ. And, Revelation predicts his coming to rule on the earth. As Wayne Grudem said, “the entire New Testament bears witness to the resurrection of Christ.” Likewise, In 1 Corinthians 15:14 and 17 (ESV) Paul taught that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, our “faith is in vain” and “futile.” There is no Christian faith apart from the resurrection.
Importance to the Faith
It’s importance to the Christian faith is demonstrated in many ways: (1) Belief in the resurrection is an essential element of the gospel. Romans 10:9-10 says, “because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Apart from believing in a literal resurrection we cannot be born again (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-4). (2) In Scripture, our receiving the new birth is attributed in part to Christ’s resurrection. First Peter 1:3 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Without the resurrection, we cannot be born again. (3) In Scripture our justification is attributed in part to the resurrection. In Romans 4:25 (NIV), Paul said this about Christ, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” Christ’s resurrection was basically a declaration of God’s approval. It was a divine guarantee, a receipt of payment—proving that God accepted Christ’s sacrifice for sin. Therefore, those who trust in Christ are justified—meaning they are declared righteous, as though they never sinned. (4) In Scripture, empowerment to conquer sin and live righteously is attributed in part to our union with Christ’s death and his resurrection. In Romans 6:4, 6, and 11, Paul says:
Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life… We know that our old man was crucified with him so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin… So you too consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Empowerment to conquer sin and live a new life comes, in part, from Christ’s resurrection. (5) In Scripture, Christ’s resurrection is also commonly linked with the believers’ future resurrection. Consider a few verses:
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
1 Corinthians 15:20
But our citizenship is in heaven—and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself.
Our resurrected bodies will be like Christ’s resurrected body. The resurrection is crucial to our faith. It is an essential element of the gospel; it is connected with our new birth, our justification, our empowerment to conquer sin and live a new life, and even our future resurrected bodies.
Therefore, since the resurrection is so important to our faith, we must ask, “What are evidences for Christ’s resurrection? How do we know it’s true?” In John 20:28, Christ said to Thomas, “Blessed are the people who have not seen and yet have believed.” Does this mean Christ expects us to believe in the resurrection apart from evidence? No, he didn’t mean that. Thomas wanted further evidence than what had already been given to him—the eye-witness testimonies. Likewise, we have convincing eye-witness testimonies preserved for us in the writing of the apostles and their associates, as well as other ancient writers which corroborate their testimonies. These type of testimonies are crucial to confirm the validity of any ancient event. In fact, it has often been said that there is more historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection than that Julius Caesar even lived. In fact, Brooke Foss Westcott, a British scholar who lived from 1825-1901, said this: “Indeed taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no historic incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ.” If we reject the evidence of Christ’s resurrection, then we will have to reject much of what we know about ancient history. We’ll consider evidences for the resurrection below.
The Case of the Empty Tomb
It is well attested historically that Christ died on the cross. Not only do we have the testimony of New Testament authors, but also ancient, secular historians like Josephus (Jewish) and Tacitus (Roman) who recorded the event in their writings. In addition, medical experts, using scientific research, have examined the circumstances of Christ’s crucifixion, including the fact that he was beaten to disfigurement before his crucifixion (Is 52:14, John 19:1-3), that people crucified typically died by asphyxiation (not being able to breath), and that he was pierced by a professional executioner to confirm his death (John 19:34), and concluded that Christ couldn’t have survived.
After Christ’s crucifixion, he was buried in a rich man’s tomb. The tomb was sealed and guarded by soldiers. When Christ resurrected, there was a great earthquake, an angel appeared and rolled away the stone, and the guards ran away. Christ was no longer present in the grave, but his clothes laid on the ground (Matt 28:1-10, Mk 16:1-8, Lk 24:1-8, John 20:1-18). The empty grave was first found by some women followers, and then, they told Christ’s disciples. To account for the missing body, the Pharisees accused the disciples of stealing it and paid the guards a large sum to remain quiet (Matt 28:11-15).
Since Christ, without a doubt, died and was buried, we must ask the question, “Was there really an empty tomb?” This is a fundamental question that must be answered affirmatively to prove that Christ did in fact rise from the dead. Here are a few evidences:
1. Proof of an empty tomb is the fact that Christ’s body was never produced as evidence against the resurrection.
Again, Paul taught that the resurrection is the crux of the Christian faith. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, our faith is in vain (1 Cor 15:14, 17). Therefore, in order to stop Christianity from growing, all the authorities had to do was prosecute the disciples (including having the soldiers testify) and produce the body. However, there is no historical record of the disciples ever being charged for stealing Christ’s body. Instead, the disciples were threatened to stop preaching the resurrection, flogged, jailed, exiled, and most were ultimately martyred. If the Jews had produced the body or even given an adequate explanation for the fact that it was missing, it would have ended Christianity before it began. However, they didn’t. The tomb was empty, and the body was never found.
2. Proof of an empty tomb is the fact that women were the first and primary witnesses of Christ’s resurrection (Matt 28:1-10, John 20:1, 14-18).
Since women had such a low standing in ancient Jewish and Roman societies, it wouldn’t make sense for the disciples to fabricate a resurrection story with women witnesses. In fact, in a Jewish court of law, a woman’s testimony was not even admissible. If the disciples were going to fabricate a resurrection story, they would have surely chosen the initial witnesses to be male. This shows that the Gospel writers faithfully recorded what happened even if it would have been embarrassing or unconvincing in their culture. When women went to see Christ’s body at the tomb, it was empty. Christ had resurrected.
3. Proof of an empty tomb is the historical lack of tomb veneration.
During the period Jesus lived, there were at least fifty tombs of prophets or holy persons which served as sites of religious worship and veneration. With Jesus being the founder of Christianity, certainly early followers would have regularly visited his grave if his body was still there. However, there is no record of that. This is further proof that the body was never found and that the tomb was empty.
The empty tomb is a necessary evidence of Christ’s resurrection. What are other evidences?
The Case of the Original Apostles
A strong evidence is that of the original apostles. Who were the apostles? They were twelve devoted followers of Christ who lived and served with him during his three years of ministry. However, when Christ was betrayed by Judas (one of the twelve) and taken by the Jewish and Roman authorities to be put to death for claiming to be the messiah, they all ran away, and some denied him overtly. Though they believed in him, they were not willing to die with him.
While the disciples served Christ, he spent a considerable part of his ministry preparing them for his death. (1) He told them that he was going to die and be raised from the dead three days later (John 2:19). (2) He told them that the Jewish authorities were going to put him to death (Matt 16:21) and (3) warned that they would be persecuted for following him (Matt 24:9). (4) He even taught them that to be his disciples, they had to be willing to take up their crosses—being willing to die for their faith (Lk 14:27). However, when everything Christ taught them happened, they fled. None were willing to die with him.
With that said, this leads to one of the strongest evidences for the resurrection. After Christ rose from the dead and appeared to his apostles, each of the remaining eleven were willing to be hated, beaten, jailed, exiled, and even die for their belief. Each of the remaining eleven died for Christ—declaring that he had been resurrected—with the exception of John, who spent the last part of his life exiled on an island for prisoners because of his faith (Rev 1).
If the resurrection story was simply a fabrication they made up, “Why would they die for something they knew was a lie?” If the resurrection was false, surely somebody would have broken and said, “OK, OK! We lied! We stole the body and hid him!” But none did. Not only Peter, the head apostle, but also his wife died for Christ. When his wife was being taken to be crucified, he encouraged her with, “Remember the Lord!” And when it was his time to die, he requested to be crucified upside down because he didn’t deserve to die like Christ. From a historical perspective, the apostle’s willingness to die for their belief in the resurrection means that they truly believed it and that the story was not fabricated, especially when considering that each of them fled or denied him while he was still alive.
Michael Green, Principal of St. John College, Nottingham, said this:
[The resurrection] was the belief that turned heart broken followers of a crucified rabbi into the courageous witnesses and martyrs of the early church. This was the one belief that separated the followers of Jesus from the Jews and turned them into the community of the resurrection. You could imprison them, flog them, kill them, but you could not make them deny their conviction that on the third day he rose again.
The Case of James, Jesus’ Brother
Further support for the resurrection is the conversion and martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus. During Christ’s ministry, James did not believe in him, even though he witnessed the miracles. In fact, John 7:3-5 shares this about James and Christ’s other brother, Jude:
So Jesus’ brothers advised him, “Leave here and go to Judea so your disciples may see your miracles that you are performing. For no one who seeks to make a reputation for himself does anything in secret. If you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his own brothers believed in him.)
However, after Christ’s resurrection, he appeared to James. First Corinthians 15:3-7 says:
For I passed on 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. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
After seeing the resurrected Christ, James converted. He not only became a follower of Christ but also an apostle—an official witness of the resurrection. He became the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:13-21) and was known as “James the Just” because of his righteous character. Tradition says his knees were hard like a camel’s knees because of the callouses developed from long periods in prayer.
James even wrote his own epistle which begins with “From James, a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes dispersed abroad…” (Jam 1:1). James considered himself a slave of Christ. His belief in Christ not only attests to the resurrection but also to many other doctrines about Christ. It provides evidence for Christ’s sinless life and the virgin birth. James would have known more about these things than anybody else, and yet, he still believed in Christ. He not only believed in Christ, but tradition says he died a martyr, stoned by the Jews around AD 62.
The Case of the Apostle Paul
Another evidence that must be considered is that of the apostle Paul. Paul was a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). He was raised knowing Jewish law and the Greek and Hebrew languages. He studied under a renowned rabbi named Gamaliel (Acts 22:3 cf. Acts 5:34). As Christianity grew in popularity among the Jews, Paul zealously persecuted all who believed and taught it. He believed Christians were perverting the true way to salvation which came through the law, and not through faith in Jesus Christ. When Stephen attempted to preach the gospel to the Jews and was stoned for it, the Jews threw his clothes at Paul’s feet (Acts 7:58, 8:1)—demonstrating his consent of their actions. Later, Paul received permission from the Jewish authorities to imprison anybody who professed Christ. However, while on his way to Damascus, Paul had a vision of the resurrected Christ which blinded him. In Acts 9:3-5, Luke describes this experience:
As he was going along, approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” So he said, “Who are you, Lord?” He replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting!
In addition, in 1 Corinthians 15:7-8, Paul shared this about seeing the resurrected Christ and his call to apostleship: “Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also.” Paul considered himself “born at the wrong time” or “abnormally born” (NIV) because his call to apostleship happened after the resurrection, not before, like the original apostles.
Historians throughout the ages have been baffled at the historic figure of Paul—a Pharisee persecuting Christians, who professed to have seen the resurrected Christ, consequently converting, then becoming an apostle who preached to the Gentiles. He wrote almost half of the New Testament, was constantly persecuted for his faith, and died a martyr. It’s like the historical figure of Hitler, who persecuted Jews, becoming a Jew and writing major sections of their most revered religious literature because he claimed to have seen a resurrected Moses. It sounds ridiculous! Yet, that is what Paul claimed about Christ, which has always baffled historians.
Consider how drastic Paul’s change was: (1) Not only did he profess Christ who he previously hated, but he also began to love Gentiles. Faithful Jews despised Gentiles. Jewish men commonly prayed a morning blessing thanking God they were Jews and not Gentile dogs, men and not women. But, after Paul’s conversion, he was now the apostle to the Gentiles, spending his life on missionary journeys throughout Asia and Europe, seeking to reach them. (2) In addition, Paul was considered the liberator of women. Most Jewish teachers would not teach women, and some wouldn’t even look at them, to prevent lust; however, Paul championed the teaching of women and their dignity. In 1 Timothy 2:11, he says, “A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness.” This was radical during those days. Paul the persecutor of Christians, the racist, and misogynist now loved Jesus, Christians, Gentiles, and women!
Elias Andrews, a noted historian, said this:
Many have found the radical transformation of this Pharisee of the Pharisees the most convincing evidence of the truth and power of religion to which he was converted, as well as the ultimate worth and place of the Person of Christ.
In Paul’s writings, he constantly spoke of his conversion and commitment to the resurrected Christ:
I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I may gain Christ
But not only did Paul preach the resurrection, he also died for it. Tradition says he was decapitated in his second Roman imprisonment, around the mid-60s AD. His life is a tremendous evidence for the resurrection.
In fact, a story about two professors at Oxford who were initially antagonistic to Christianity shows the importance of Paul’s conversion. As stated by Josh McDowell in his book, More than a Carpenter:
Two professors at Oxford, Gilbert West and Lord Lyttleton, were determined to destroy the basis of the Christian faith. West was going to demonstrate the fallacy of the resurrection and Lyttleton was going to prove that Saul of Tarsus had never converted to Christianity. Both men came to the opposite conclusion and became ardent followers of Jesus. Lord Lyttleton writes:
The conversion and apostleship of Saint Paul alone, duly considered, was of itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a Divine Revelation.
He concludes that if Paul’s twenty-five years of suffering and service for Christ were a reality, then his conversion was true, for everything he did began with that sudden change. And if his conversion was true, Jesus Christ rose from the dead, for everything Paul was and did he attributed to the sight of the risen Christ.
The Case of the Jews in Acts
Possibly, the strongest evidence for the resurrection is the conversion of many of the Jews who convinced Pilate to murder Christ. How is it possible that only weeks after Christ died, these Jews became followers of Christ? In Acts 2, Peter proclaimed the resurrection of the one they killed and called for their repentance and 3,000 of them were converted. Consider the following verses:
Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know—this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles. But God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power.
Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.” Now when they heard this, they were acutely distressed and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What should we do, brothers?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added. They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Why were they converted? They had to be convinced that the resurrection was true. Not only did 3,000 convert, but in Acts 4:4, the number grew to 5,000. Historically, the early church boomed in Jerusalem, and then because of persecution, it spread throughout the ancient world and exists today as the biggest religion in the world.
How is this possible? It’s baffling. (1) Some have tried to explain it away as a mass hallucination or dream. However, that makes no sense. How can thousands of people have the same hallucination? (2) Some have tried to explain it away as the development of a myth or legend. But again, that is illogical. Myths and legends take generations to develop. They don’t develop while the original audience is still alive and, certainly, not a few weeks after the event. Conclusions that deny a literal resurrection just don’t make sense.
Again, the New Testament declares that after the resurrection, Christ appeared to the apostles and then 500 people over a period of forty days (1 Cor 15:6, Acts 1:3). These witnesses were throughout Jerusalem. The tomb was empty. The Roman soldiers who typically would have been executed for failing to protect the tomb apparently were still alive (Matt 28:11-15), and the body of Christ was never found. The Jews who consented to Christ’s death had to be totally convinced of his resurrection, because after publicly committing to Christ, they would have been persecuted for their newfound faith. Probably, contributing to their quick conversion was the fact that right after Christ’s death, there was a major earthquake in Jerusalem and the bodies of other believers were resurrected (Matt 27:50-54). These Jews were convinced that Jesus was the Son of God and that he had resurrected.
Now it must be remembered, this isn’t just something the Bible teaches. These are historical facts about the birth of the early church, well-attested by ancient Jewish and Roman historians. Jesus resurrected from the grave! No other conclusion makes sense.
Now, that we have considered the importance of the resurrection to our faith and its evidence, we must ask, “How should we apply the resurrection to our lives?”
1. Briefly, since Scripture promises the power of the resurrection in our lives, we must pray to know it and experience it and for others to as well.
Consider a few verses: In Philippians 3:10-11, Paul said, “My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Also, he prayed this for the Ephesians, that they would “know” (Eph 1:17-20; cf. Eph 3:16):
what is the incomparable greatness of his power toward us who believe, as displayed in the exercise of his immense strength. This power he exercised in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms
We must pray to know it as well in our fighting sin, in our serving others, in our persevering in trials. God has given us this power. It must be our goal and prayer for ourselves to experience it. It should also be our goal and prayer for others to experience it.
2. Since there is so much historical evidence for the resurrection (even more than most ancient events), it should give us great confidence in the reliability of God’s Word.
We cannot only trust what the Bible says about the resurrection but also about creation, salvation, about Christ’s second coming, heaven, hell, and in general our future throughout eternity. The Bible is trustworthy in all it says about science, history, and faith. We can trust it since God is the ultimate of author of Scripture and he cannot tell a lie (Titus 1:2).
The resurrection is crucial to our faith. Without it, our faith is in vain. It is a crucial aspect of the gospel message; is linked to our new birth, our justification, power to live the Christian life, and to our resurrected bodies. And, not only is it important, it has strong historical evidences which support our faith. As mentioned, there is no ancient historical event more variously supported than the resurrection. If we reject the historical evidence for the resurrection, we must reject much of what we know about ancient history, including the fact that Julius Caesar even lived.
If you have never made a commitment to Christ as your Lord and Savior, you can do this today. There is no future hope apart from him. ABC is an easy to remember acronym which helps us understand the process of following Christ and being saved.
1. A. We must ACCEPT that we are sinners under the judgment of a holy God. He is loving but he is also just, and every sin deserves death (Rom 6:23).
2. B. We must BELIEVE that Christ died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead (Rom 10:9). He rose from the dead as a proof that God accepted his sacrifice for our sins and that one day we will rise from the dead to live eternally in glorified bodies.
3. C. We must CONFESS Christ as our Lord and Savior and commit to follow him for the rest of your life (Rom 10:13).
If you truly do this with your heart, then God reckons Christ’s perfect life as your perfect life, his death for sins as your death, and his resurrection to new life, as your resurrection to new life. God through his Spirit gives us eternal life and we will dwell with God and serve him forever (John 3:16).
• Pray for the eyes of our hearts to be enlightened to understand the great resurrection power operating within us (Eph 1:18-20).
• Pray that God would strengthen our inner man with this resurrection power to conquer sin, persevere through trials, and to abound in righteousness to the glory of God (Eph 3:16).
• Pray that God would give us grace to walk in our hope and joy because of the resurrection, as we confront our own trials and mortality (1 Pet 1:3). Our Savior has conquered sin, death, the world, and Satan, and we are victorious in him.
1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
2. Why is the resurrection so important to our faith?
3. What are some historical evidences of Jesus’ resurrection? Which historical evidence is the strongest to you and why?
4. What other questions and applications did you take from the reading?