The Historical Fact of the Resurrection

No point of the Christian creed is assailed as much as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. A vast library of books has been written in an attempt to reason away what some see either as a problematic dogma or as an outright myth that only the ignorant and superstitious would believe. For the purpose of this article, I will be limiting my examination to objections to the historical veracity of the resurrection. That is, the claims that the testimony found in the gospels is unreliable and that, as a result, the claims of the resurrection of Jesus cannot be established as historically certain. If indeed we can establish the resurrection as an event in human history, then we have gone far in defending the doctrine itself. Dr. Gary Habermas, a scholar in the fields of Philosophical Theology and historical Jesus studies provides some solid criteria from the historical method by which we can examine the resurrection claims. Why do we examine the claim by the historical method rather than the scientific? The scientific method deals with the observable and repeatable, and as the resurrection was a singular event in time and limited to a specific person, it cannot be tested by scientific means. Furthermore, science is not the sole test of truth. In fact, the claim that only science can establish truth is unscientific. Habermas offers the following points of historical note. 1

1. In any historic event, the more independent witnesses you have, the better.-This is a strong indication that the claims asserted have a basis in fact. C.S. Lewis correctly observes that:

"The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection." 2

With regard to the resurrection of Jesus, we have multiple witnesses, including the twelve apostles, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome, James the brother of Jesus, Paul, Joanna, and more. If we take just the minimal approach, we have seventeen eyewitnesses to the fact that Jesus appeared to them alive after he had clearly died and been buried. 

2. Affirmation by neutral or hostile sources is better than that from a friendly source.- This is so because biases at work in the person's favor are not in operation. If anything, the bias will be against the claims in the case of a hostile source. With regard to the resurrection, we do indeed have extra-biblical sources that attest to the claim that Christ rose from the dead. For example, Josephus, a Jewish historian working for the Roman emperor wrote:

"At this time there was a wise man named Jesus...and those who became his disciples...reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive."-Josephus 3

3. Witnesses do not generally make up details that would weaken their position.- For example, in the culture of the apostles and Jesus, a woman's testimony was worthless. If you attempted to use the testimony of a woman to establish a fact you would very likely find yourself losing your case. However, the early Christians employed the testimony of the women at the tomb who first saw the resurrected Christ. 

Craig Keener, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary writes:

"The witness of the women at the tomb is very likely historical, precisely because it was so offensive to the larger culture-not the sort of testimony one would invent. Not all testimony was regarded as being of equal merit; the trustworthiness of witnesses was considered essential." 4

If indeed they had been creating a fiction they hoped to foist on unsuspecting people, the choice of women as witnesses was the completely wrong way to do so. The fact that they admitted such testimony only increases the likelihood that something extraordinary did in fact occur. N.T. Wrights suggests the same when he states that the change was so sudden and drastic in the lives of the eyewitnesses that something world-shattering had occurred.5

4. Eyewitness testimony is generally considered stronger than testimony from a secondhand source.- Our courts of law work in this way to establish facts and a preponderance of evidence by which they can make reasonably sound judgments. The testimonies of Paul, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome, Peter, John and the other apostles are all primary witness testimonies and to disregard them is to toss out evidence that is crucial to any court case. Even Gerd Ludemann, biblical scholar and historian, as well as self-avowed atheist states:

"It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus' death in which Jesus appeared to them as the Risen Christ." 6

With such testimony being historically certain, it is essential that it be considered honestly and reasonably.

5. Early testimony from very close to the event is generally considered more reliable than later testimony.- What this means is that our primary source documents, the writings of the New Testament, are the most historically reliable sources we have to establish the fact of the resurrection. Skeptics may attempt to disregard them as mere myth, but the historical method does not permit that. It demands they be taken seriously, 

The fact of the matter is the vast majority of scholars who have studied the resurrection accounts, gathered all of the extra-biblical materials related to the case and carefully weighed the data have concluded several things.

a. Eyewitness testimony states that Jesus appeared to them after death.

b. That his appearance was a physical one, not a spiritual or apparition appearance.

c. Their lives were radically changed from fearful and hiding men after his death, to bold eyewitnesses of his resurrection.

d. These eyewitnesses, though they were tortured, imprisoned, beat and even put to death, steadfastly refused to retract their testimony or amend it in any way. 

Mere myth or a scam does not encourage men to give up their lives or endure torture. Rather, if the testimony was indeed contrived, such men tend to break under the pain or even mere threat of torture. Something very real happened to these witnesses; an historic event so incredible that they gave up everything rather than deny the fact of that event. Indeed, as C.S. Lewis so wisely explained, something profound did happen in human history.

"The New Testament writers speak as if Christ's achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the 'first fruits', 'the pioneer of life'. He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so." 7


1. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel Publications, 2004) pp. 47-55

2. C.S. Lewis, Joyful Christian (Simon and Schuster, 1996) pg. 64

3. Shlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications (Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities: Jerusalem, 1971

4. Craig S. Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Eerdmans, 2012) pg. 331

5. N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress Press, 1992)  pg. 552

6. Gerd Ludemann, What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996) pg. 80

7. C.S. Lewis, Joyful Christian (Simon and Schuster, 1996) pg. 65