Every year around Easter, it’s the same thing. Another TV special or book challenges the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. They promise to reveal new or secret information that “the church doesn’t want you to know.” The one-sided information is not new or secret; it is meant to under-mine the Christian faith. If the resurrection can be debunked, there’s no substance for the Christian’s hope.
I must confess I used to make those same challenges. When I was a devoted Muslim, I rejected Jesus’ resurrection because the Qur’an declared that He didn’t even die on the cross, let alone rise from the dead. (See Qur’an 4:157-158.) As a Muslim, I wanted other people to believe what I thought was the truth—that the substance of our hope doesn’t rest in Jesus’ death and resurrection, but in God’s mercy on those who strive to follow all of His commands. Undermining the resurrection would undermine the gospel, which would allow me to invite people to whatever hope Islam could offer. After all, as the apostle Paul wrote, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).
Over the centuries, different religions have claimed to offer hope. But as the founders of those views ask us to follow them, a question should spring to our minds: Why should we trust you? Their answers haven’t given us substantial proof. They’ve offered subjective tests that only appeal to our sense of beauty, aesthetics, or authority. According to Islam, for example, the central (and basically sole) miracle that authenticates Muhammad’s prophethood is the Qur’an’s incomparable language. But this is just a subjective claim—it depends on one’s opinion. Hinduism’s beloved text is the Bhagavad Gita, which tells the story of the god Krishna’s encounter with a young warrior named Arjuna as he wrestles with the issues of duty, honor, war, and love. But the story has no historical foundation, which means that its lessons simply appeal to our preferences. Buddha, when asked to substantiate his spiritual authority, merely pointed to the depth of his teaching. “Look to my Dharma,” he said, without any further justification. And naturalistic atheism tells us that our hope is found in humanity’s shared values, but it doesn’t provide us with any substance for that hope.
While we often use “hope” to mean the emotion-laden expectation that a promise will be fulfilled, “faith” is our trust in the One who made the promise.
Jesus’ answer is unique. On entering the temple courts, He saw the moneychangers ripping people off. So He overturned their tables and drove them out, declaring that they had made His “Father’s house a place of business” (John 2:16). As they fell over themselves to get away from the fire they saw in His eyes, they asked, “What sign do You show us as Your authority for doing these things?” (v. 18).
Jesus answered as no one else could. “Destroy this temple,” He said, “and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19). He was referring to His own body, of course. But don’t miss the context. Jesus referred to the temple as His “Father’s house,” thereby claiming to be the divine Son of God. That’s no small claim. And so the authorities rightly asked, “Why should we believe you?” Unlike other spiritual founders, Jesus gave them (and us) an objective test—His resurrection from the dead. Either that would happen or it wouldn’t. If it didn’t, Jesus could be ignored as just another quack with a messiah complex (and there were plenty in His day). But if it did, then He alone has the authority to provide substance for our hope (14:6).
The gospel’s depth is that it speaks to our emotions while giving us a solid historical basis upon which to know our feelings of hope are well founded. From Hebrews 11:1, we learn that hope and faith aren’t synonyms. While we often use “hope” to mean the emotion-laden expectation that a promise will be fulfilled, “faith” is our trust in the One who made the promise. But how can we have confidence enough to trust Jesus? Indulge me as I hearken back to my trial lawyer days to give a closing argument presenting four historical facts that demonstrate the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, here is my case.
The first fact is Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Of course, to have Jesus rise from the dead, He has to have died first. I bring this up because, as I mentioned earlier, Muslims claim that Jesus never actually died. But the historical evidence—including not only the Gospels but also extra-biblical sources like the Roman historian Tacitus and Jewish historian Josephus—tells us that Jesus did in fact die by crucifixion at Pontius Pilate’s command. Indeed, modern atheist historian Gerd Lüdemann writes, “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.”
Next, we have Jesus’ appearances to His disciples. History tells us those men were firmly convinced that following His death, they saw Him alive, with their own eyes. According to historian Paula Fredriksen, the disciples’ conviction that they’d seen the risen Christ rests on “facts known past doubting.”
She’s not alone in that conclusion. Though he rejects Christianity and questions what the resurrection actually was, Lüdemann concedes, “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.” The disciples were killed or were willing to be killed for their conviction in Jesus’ resurrection. And, far different from cult members or radicals who are willing to die for a belief that someone else convinced them was true, the disciples were willing to die for a fact they knew was either true or false. If it didn’t really happen, they would’ve known, and their preaching would have been a lie. Yet they stood fast in the face of suffering. As the saying goes, liars make poor martyrs.
Third, history tells us that the skeptics Paul and James were converted once they encountered the risen Christ. We know from the earliest sources that James didn’t believe in Jesus before the resurrection (Mark 3:21, 31, Mark 6:3-4, John 7:5). Yet, after Jesus had risen, James became the leader of the Jerusalem church (Gal. 1:19, Gal. 2:9, Acts 12:17, Acts 15:13). And Paul wasn’t just a skeptic but an enemy of the church, approving Stephen’s death and sending Christians to prison (Acts 7:58, Acts 9:1-9, Gal. 1:13). Yet his encounter with the risen Christ transformed Paul from the church’s persecutor to the gospel’s champion (1 Cor. 15:3-8, Gal. 1:11-18). When I was a trial lawyer, it was very rare when a hostile witness became my biggest advocate. It’s a turn of events that makes a lawyer salivate because that person is cloaked in credibility—which is exactly the kind of witness we find in Paul.
And finally, there’s the empty tomb. While not all scholars agree on its historicity, a good number do. In fact, author William Wand sums up the evidence well when he says, “All the strictly historical evidence we have is in favor of the empty tomb, and those scholars who reject it ought to recognize that they do so on some other ground than that of scientific history.”
Jesus died by crucifixion and rose from the dead three days later. That historical reality is the substance of a Christian’s hope.
Only one explanation accounts for all of these facts: that Jesus died by crucifixion and rose from the dead three days later. That historical reality is the substance of a Christian’s hope.
There was a time in my life when these facts were what Al Gore would call “inconvenient truths.” After years of study, my intellectual integrity required me to agree that they happened. But it took even more time for the truth to make the longest journey—from the head to the heart. Why? Because the consequences of believing in the resurrection were too great. You see, Jesus’ resurrection declares the gospel to be true and is also, simultaneously, a refutation of any and every worldview that would deny the good news of the cross. And if my worldview rejected Jesus’ resurrection, then I’d have to give it up and die to myself.
Just as Jesus said in John 2:18-19, His resurrection vindicates His claim that I am a sinner in need of a savior—and He is that Savior. Today, this truth bathes every aspect of my life in hope. But it isn’t just a deferred hope. It transforms how we all face this life. The historical resurrection assures us that Good Fridays become Easter Sundays. The hope for a weary world is the evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead. As only the Lord of Glory can do, He sums up everything that has been written about that hope in a single sentence: “Because I live, you will live also” (John 14:19).