The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Event

This essay is a research paper I wrote

Note: This is a lengthier post than normal. It is an essay I wrote in my apologetics class in college on the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. Comment or send me an email if you have any questions you’d like to see addressed!

The Christian faith is centered on a historical event that, if not true, would destroy the faith. That event is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul writes that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14 NIV). Dr. Paul Copan makes a valid point when he says “First Corinthians 15 claims that the Christian faith rises or falls on the historical fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Paul gives objective reasons to support this claim—one is Jesus having been seen by a string of witnesses (numbering skeptics, doubters, and unbelievers), including over five hundred at once.”[1] The resurrection of Jesus Christ as a historical event means that not only is what the Bible says true but that there is a God, he did come to the earth in the person of Jesus Christ, he did die on a cross between two criminals and rose from the dead, and he is going to come back one day. Without the resurrection being factual, you might as well toss out the whole Bible!

William Lane Craig once spoke at “a major Canadian university on the existence of God”[2] and while there someone wrote on a “comment card, “I was with you until you got to the stuff about Jesus. God is not the Christian God!”[3] This type of thinking has become popular nowadays.[4] Many who deny that Jesus rose from the dead simply have not looked into the evidence that says this event is historical and not just a tale passed down from devoted followers over the last few thousand years. “Most people are happy to agree that God exists, but in our pluralistic society, it has become politically incorrect to claim that God has revealed Himself decisively in Jesus. What justification can Christians offer, in contrast to Hindus, Jews, and Muslims, for thinking that the Christian God is real? The answer of the New Testament is the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus’ radical personal claims to divine authority.”[5] Without the resurrection, the Christian message falls apart entirely. That is why showing that it is a historical event helps prove not only was Jesus who he said he was but that the claims of Christianity are true. And with all the pluralists, atheists, and individuals who may deny the existence of God, showing this event as part of recorded history would mean it cannot, and should not, be ignored or simply wrote off as a myth or a work of fiction or fabrication.

This paper will attempt to prove, with supporting evidence, that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is historically accurate just as it is known that Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492. First, this paper will address the following question: Was the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ a historical event despite common arguments suggesting the event did not actually happen? It is one thing to simply only say the resurrection of Jesus happened; it is entirely another thing to state it with supporting evidence that cannot be debunked.

To address this opening question, it is important to state that there is sufficient evidence that supports Jesus was truly dead when he was put in the tomb after his crucifixion. “The idea that Jesus never really died on the cross can be found in the Qur’an, which was written in the seventh century—in fact, Ahmadiya Muslims contend that Jesus actually fled to India.”[6] What makes this claim hard to believe is when it was written—the seventh century! The Biblical texts date much earlier than the Qur’an and there are many more ancient texts in existence than the Qur’an. “There are some 25,000 early manuscripts in existence, almost 6,000 of which (many being only recognizable fragments) are Greek texts and the others being early translations of the Greek New Testament. The Old Testament has been more accurately transmitted to us than any other ancient writing of comparable age. The textual evidence is greater for both the Old and New Testaments than any other historically reliable ancient document.”[7] The sheer amount of ancient texts helps support that what the Bible has to say is important—important enough to have influenced much of world history over the last few thousand years. And if the resurrection of Jesus did not happen there would have been quite a lot of people mistaken. The chances of that are extremely low. 

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Medically speaking, the brutal beating Jesus endured and the crucifixion itself was not at all survivable. Scenes from Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ attempt to portray what these events were like but even they do not capture how bad it truly was. When Jesus was whipped “the resulting cuts were so severe that the skeletal muscles, underlying veins, sinews, and bowels of victims were exposed. This beating was so severe that at times victims would not survive it in order to go on to be crucified.”[8]

When Jesus’ side was pierced by one of the soldiers with a spear there was a sudden flow of blood and water (John 19:34). This event at the crucifixion has been medically proven to be the result of being in hypovolemic shock. The writers of the Gospels had no idea of this medical fact when writing about Jesus’ death on the cross two thousand years ago. It was common that “those who were flogged would often go into hypovolemic shock, a term that refers to low blood volume. In other words, the person would have lost so much blood he would go into shock. The results of this would be: 1) the heart would race to pump blood that was not there, 2) the victim would collapse or faint due to low blood pressure, 3) the kidneys would shut down to preserve body fluids, 4) the person would experience extreme thirst as the body desired to replenish lost fluids.” Judging by this medical fact, and how Jesus was not even able to carry his own cross after being beaten, shows there was no way he could have survived being nailed to a cross for hours.

Logically, it does not make any sense they would have placed a living man in a sealed tomb that was being guarded by Roman soldiers. Some have even suggested that Jesus merely passed out as to appear to be dead or possibly had been given some type of drug that made him look dead only to be revived by the cool, damp air of the tomb.[9] Of course, that just does not sound remotely believable, especially after seeing the medical evidence that supports how badly wounded Jesus would have been when beaten and then adding being hung on a cross—there was no way a drug could have replaced the sheer amount of blood that was lost.

“Prior to death, the sustained rapid heartbeat caused by hypovolemic shock also causes fluid to gather in the sack around the heart and around the lungs. This gathering of fluid in the membrane around the heart is called pericardial effusion, and the fluid gathering around the lungs is called pleural effusion.”[10] This medical fact explains what happened in John 19:34 when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side with the spear and blood and water came pouring out. With this medical evidence alone, it is hard to believe that Jesus was not dead when he was taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb. Medically speaking, such a scenario just does not make much sense. Jesus was truly dead—though only for a short time!

Aside from the medical evidence that supports the claim Jesus was dead and could not have survived being beaten and crucified, there is the fact that the Romans were experts in killing people by crucifixion. This method of killing was not original to Rome—Rome did not invent this method of killing. It was likely introduced “to eastern Mediterranean countries in the fourth century B.C. But Roman officials weren't aware of the practice until they encountered it while fighting Carthage during the Punic Wars in the third century B.C. For the next 500 years, the Romans "perfected crucifixion" until Constantine I abolished it in the fourth century A.D.”[11] With having crucified thousands of people, the Romans would have made sure that Jesus was truly dead before removing him from the cross. It would make no logical sense for them to remove him before death only to be revived. When they crucified someone, they did it with the intent of death and death was the only way by which someone would be removed from the cross.

It is also important to note that there are sources outside of the Biblical texts that mention the fact that Jesus did die by crucifixion. Such non-Biblical sources can be found from historical figures like Josephus, “who writes, “When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified.”[12] It is even noted that “The Talmud reports that “on the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. Being hung on a tree was used to describe crucifixion in antiquity. Clearly, Jesus’ death by crucifixion is a historical fact supported by considerable evidence.”[13] The support for his death on the cross is hard to disprove when there are trustworthy sources outside of the Biblical text themselves.

Along with there being evidence that supports the claim Jesus was truly dead when he was placed in the tomb, there is also support for the claims that Jesus rising from the dead was not merely the result of hallucinations and fabrication. Some try to argue that is the only explanation for there to be a risen Jesus after such a horrific beating and crucifixion, but such statements do not have much merit to them.

Some people try to argue that even though Jesus died on the cross by crucifixion the disciples did not really see a risen Jesus. Those who make such a claim often state that the resurrection was a result of fabrication or hallucinations. Such accusations that the disciples along with others who claim to have seen the risen Jesus just do not add up. Of course, “while group hallucinations may be possible, it cannot be denied that groups of people sometimes do embrace shared false beliefs, to their own demise.”[14] It would then be argued that could this be applied to those claiming to have seen the resurrected Jesus? Recent modern history shows how large groups of people have been misled in a shared belief that was ultimately false, such as “Jim Jones (Peoples Temple, 1978) and David Koresh (Branch Davidians, 1993) also willing died with the hope their leader would lead them to a better place in eternity.”[15] It can easily be argued that is the case with the disciples and others who claimed to have seen Jesus, however; such claims cannot explain certain conversions that took place as a result of claiming to have seen a risen Jesus.

We can certainly claim to believe a risen Jesus will take us to “to a better place in eternity”[16] but “delusions are highly problematic explanation for Jesus’ resurrection”[17] and cannot stand when held up to how Paul, a devote Jew who wanted to arrest and murder Christians, became a Christian himself. It also cannot explain how, Jesus’ own brother James, was converted—and he was someone who did not believe Jesus while Jesus was alive! His own brother did not believe until after Jesus’ death on the cross. Why would his own brother suddenly start believing and begin proclaiming his brother as the Messiah if, in fact, he did not truly see Jesus resurrected? And why would Paul suddenly stop trying to end the Christian movement and become a Christian himself and begin to proclaim the name of the very one he was trying to suppress or write much of our New Testament advocating for a resurrected Jesus? It just does not logically make much sense.

Paul and James, along with the other disciples were not the only ones who saw Jesus risen from the dead. First Corinthians 15:6-8 makes mention of Jesus appearing to over five hundred people along with James, the apostles, and to Paul as well. It would be hard to believe that over five hundred people hallucinated a risen Jesus with some of them, as a result of the risen Jesus, having their lives completely transformed. Many even died for such a claim and were unwilling to renounce a risen Jesus. That makes one wonder: Why would they willingly die for what they know to be a lie if, in fact, it was not a lie and really did happen? Even right after Jesus died, before he rose from the dead, the Bible makes mention of many coming out of tombs, rising from the dead, and entering the city and appearing to many (Matthew 27:53). Add this group with those who saw the resurrected Jesus—the chances of hallucinations are highly unlikely. It does not logically make sense, two thousand years ago, that a group of over five hundred people would all lie about seeing a risen Jesus. If it were not true there would likely be evidence of some kind of some of these individuals recanting their claims.

It is also not conclusive to make the statement that the disciples only saw a vision of Jesus. By doing so that would imply they merely saw a picture of Jesus, but that does not align with what the New Testament describes with their encounter with Jesus after his death. “Vision cannot account for the empty tomb. If the disciples only saw visions of the risen Jesus, objective or otherwise, the tomb should have still been occupied.”[18] Also, what the disciples saw was a body, something physical that “occupied space and time”[19], and Thomas even physically touched Jesus. A vision of Jesus—or even a hallucination—would not explain a physical body taking up space that the disciples were able to touch and even eat with. So, careful analysis of the Scriptures alone, shows that hallucinations or even visions do not hold much weight when trying to disprove a bodily resurrection.

Multiple books could be written to speak to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but this paper aims to only speak to a small handful of details that favors the event as historical. In closing, another question needing attention is: Why is this relevant for us today? Why does it matter of the resurrection of Jesus Christ was historical or not? First, there is overwhelming evidence for such an event and because of that, it is worth talking about. We often talk about other historical figures that have less historical evidence for certain events, yet we believe them without a shadow of a doubt, such as “Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon River. But there are very few firsthand reports in the ancient world”[20] for this event. And as already mentioned, there are thousands of sources for the New Testament alone, which increases the likelihood of the resurrection event being more historical than mythical. So, for us today, this means we can trust what the Bible says about what happened after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.

This historical event is relevant for us because it is the foundation upon which the Christian faith hangs upon. “Jesus’ resurrection explains how the church spread rapidly against all odds and against all hostility.”[21] The resurrection accounts for the dramatic life transformations of early Christians from Judaism. Again, why would they devote their lives to something they were not sure was true? Another way to put it is: “The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central truth of the Christian faith. Without it there is no such thing as the Christian faith.”[22] That makes the reason for the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a historical event so important for us today—without it we have no hope and are still in bondage to our sins and trespasses. The resurrection gives us hope for the future and strength for today knowing that Jesus defeated sin and death.


Footnotes from paper

[1] Paul Copan, True For You, But Not For Me (Grand Rapids: 2009), 50. [2] “The Resurrection of Jesus.” n.d. Reasonablefaith.Org, accessed November 28, 2020, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/jesus-of-nazareth/the-resurrection-of-jesus/. [3] “The Resurrection of Jesus.” n.d. Reasonablefaith.Org, accessed November 28, 2020, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/jesus-of-nazareth/the-resurrection-of-jesus/. [4] “The Resurrection of Jesus.” n.d. Reasonablefaith.Org, accessed November 28, 2020, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/jesus-of-nazareth/the-resurrection-of-jesus/.   [5] “The Resurrection of Jesus.” n.d. Reasonablefaith.Org, accessed November 28, 2020, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/jesus-of-nazareth/the-resurrection-of-jesus/. [6] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: 2016), 208. [7] “The Institute for Creation Research.” n.d. Icr.Org, accessed November 29, 2020, https://www.icr.org/bible-manuscripts. [8] “Why Did Blood and Water Come out of Jesus’ Side When He Was Pierced?” 2008. Gotquestions.Org, accessed December 1, 2020, https://www.gotquestions.org/blood-water-Jesus.html.   [9] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: 2016), 208. [10] “Why Did Blood and Water Come out of Jesus’ Side When He Was Pierced?” 2008. Gotquestions.Org, accessed December 1, 2020, https://www.gotquestions.org/blood-water-Jesus.html. [11] “Jesus Wasn’t the Only Man to Be Crucified. Here’s the History behind This Brutal Practice,” Geggel, Laura. Live Science, last modified April 19, 2019, accessed December 2, 2020, https://www.livescience.com/65283-crucifixion-history.html. [12] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: 2004), 49. [13] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: 2004), 49. [14] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: 2004), 109. [15] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: 2004), 109. [16] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: 2004), 109. [17] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: 2004), 109. [18] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: 2004), 112. [19] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: 2004), 112. [20] Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, Did the Resurrection Happen? (InterVarsity Press: 2009), 67. [21] McDowell, Dr Sean, and Holman Bible Staff, eds. 2010. Apologetics Study Bible for Students-HCSB: Hard Questions, Straight Answers. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1040.   [22] “How Important Is the Resurrection to Christianity?” n.d. Blueletterbible.Org, accessed December 1, 2020, https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_811.cfm.  

Bibliography

Copan, Paul. 2009. True for You, but Not for Me: Overcoming Objections to Christian Faith. Bethany House.

Flew, Antony and Gary Habermas. 2009. Did the Resurrection Happen? Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Geggel, Laura. 2019. “Jesus Wasn’t the Only Man to Be Crucified. Here’s the History behind This Brutal Practice.” Live Science. April 19, 2019. https://www.livescience.com/65283-crucifixion-history.html.

Habermas, Gary R. and Michael R. Licona. 2004. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Kregel Publications.

McDowell, Dr Sean, and Holman Bible Staff, eds. 2010. Apologetics Study Bible for Students-HCSB: Hard Questions, Straight Answers. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman.

“How Important Is the Resurrection to Christianity?” n.d. Blueletterbible.Org. Accessed December 1, 2020. https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_811.cfm.

“The Resurrection of Jesus.” n.d. Reasonablefaith.Org. Accessed November 28, 2020. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/jesus-of-nazareth/the-resurrection-of-jesus/.

“The Institute for Creation Research.” n.d. Icr.Org. Accessed November 29, 2020. https://www.icr.org/bible-manuscripts.

“Why Did Blood and Water Come out of Jesus’ Side When He Was Pierced?” 2008. Gotquestions.Org. May 4, 2008. https://www.gotquestions.org/blood-water-Jesus.html.

Strobel, Lee. 2016. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.