Paul identified people who saw the resurrected Christ during the 40 days before His ascension. Even Jesus’ enemies and disbelieving friends were eyewitnesses.
Was Jesus actually resurrected? Many critics today find it hard to believe Jesus’ resurrection ever occurred. The apostle Paul had to quash rumors in the Corinthian congregation that Jesus Christ had never been resurrected at all, so in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 he named eyewitnesses who had been with the resurrected Christ.
People were questioning one of the fundamentals of Christianity—that we have a resurrected Lord. Can we prove to ourselves from the Bible that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and lives today? (Along with this article, be sure to read the accompanying article “Resurrection of Jesus: Can We Prove It?”)
The records we will be examining are available worldwide. The events described had such an impact on some of Christ’s former enemies and disciples that they gave their lives believing in Him as their resurrected Savior. Consider the following evidence confirming Jesus’ resurrection:
- Numerous reliable texts: There are many documents, manuscripts and fragments of the Bible, Old and New Testament, in addition to secular sources that speak of Christ’s resurrection. This contrasts with relatively few documents about some historical figures such as Julius Caesar. God has ensured that the historical record of Christ’s resurrection would be preserved accurately for us.
- Dates of the biblical records: Biblical commentators believe the synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—were written 20 to 30 years after Jesus’ resurrection. John’s account was penned between 50 and 70 years after the events. Paul’s first letter to the congregation in Corinth can be dated to around 25 years after Jesus’ resurrection. The dates of these records are consistent with being able to speak authoritatively on Christ’s resurrection.
- Many witnesses: In the Gospels, Acts and Paul’s letters, it is evident that many people were alive who could have disputed the facts provided by the New Testament writers if the details were wrong. Instead, there is agreement and consistency in what we are told. Former persecutors and detractors like Paul (previously Saul) did not dispute the records. Christians were willing to live under the constant threat of death—which would have been unthinkable unless they were convinced that Jesus was not a charlatan. We also have the promise that the Holy Spirit would guide the authors to remember events accurately (John 14:26; 16:13).
The importance of eyewitnesses
The apostle Paul instructed Timothy not to accept accusations against a fellow elder unless there were two or more witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19). Jesus referred to this principle when urging believers to maintain good relationships within the Church (Matthew 18:16-17), again repeating the importance of witnesses.
Luke stated he gathered the material for his account of Jesus’ life from “eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:2).
The other Gospels were likewise recorded from eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life, death and burial—and Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew and John were eyewitnesses. Peter likely provided John Mark with much of his material; and as we have already noted, Luke gathered details from a number of eyewitness accounts, no doubt with the input of Paul, who was instructed by the resurrected Christ (Galatians 1:11-12).
Need for written records
Herod killed James, the brother of John (Acts 12:1-2), and he threatened to kill Peter, another eyewitness of Jesus’ resurrection (verse 3). Such circumstances vividly impressed on the apostles the need for recording the historical record of Christ’s life and teaching while they were still able to do so.
Consider the rumors about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some said He never died. Others spread the rumor that the disciples took Jesus’ body so they could delude others that Jesus was resurrected. Even in the Church some mistakenly believed that Christ had not been resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:12-13). These circumstances further emphasized the need for an accurate historical record.
The biblical writings reflect careful attention to the details of Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection and appearances to others after His resurrection. The events mentioned in the Gospels and in the book of Acts parallel the order of eyewitnesses mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
The biblical record offers more details about Christ’s death and resurrection than many realize. Here are some key points:
- There were many eyewitnesses at Jesus’ death, including family, disciples, Romans and hostile accusers! They experienced three hours of darkness and a mighty earthquake that split rocks, opened graves and tore the curtain in the temple from top to bottom. Jesus’ followers showed deep sorrow, and the crowds were silenced and beat their breasts. Had these unusual events not occurred, as the biblical record states, few would have believed the account.
- There was no doubt Jesus was dead in the mind of Pilate, the Roman centurion and two members of the ruling Jewish administration. Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate to release the body of Jesus for burial. Pilate summoned the centurion for confirmation of Jesus’ death. (The same soldier earlier acknowledged Christ as the “Son of God” at the time of His death.) Joseph and Nicodemus, both members of the Sanhedrin, buried Jesus’ body before the beginning of the holy day (John 19:38-42).
- Chief priests met with Pilate to demand a guard on the tomb, apparently on the first holy day of Unleavened Bread. They sealed the tomb and set a watch. They had no doubt He was dead!
- Female relatives and followers of Jesus were convinced He was dead. They purchased spices and fragrant oils after the end of the holy day. These they prepared on the day before the weekly Sabbath and planned to add them to the myrrh and aloes used by Joseph and Nicodemus (John 19:39).
- Saints were raised from the dead to physical life at the time of Jesus’ death. When He was resurrected a few days later, these saints traveled into Jerusalem (Matthew 27:51-53). Many relatives and friends now became eyewitnesses of these previously dead righteous servants of God. This was an amazing event and a testimony to thousands!
- After an earthquake, an angel descended to move the stone door covering the tomb. Women disciples had set out from home with spices early on the first day of the week while it was dark. Before they arrived, the guards froze with fear seeing the angel. Their later report to the chief priests would become a testimony of God’s involvement.
- Angels spoke to the women. Before sunrise, the women arrived and were surprised that the stone had been moved. Angels confirmed Jesus’ resurrection and that He was going to Galilee as He had said some days before. The women were to go to the disciples and tell them He had risen.
- The disciples did not believe the women who passed on the angels’ message. Mary Magdalene told them that Jesus’ body was gone.
- Peter and John ran to the tomb to see for themselves. John was apparently convinced by what he saw, while Peter wondered about it all.
- The resurrected Christ appeared first to Mary Magdalene near the tomb, and later to more women disciples. Paul omits mentioning these appearances in 1 Corinthians 15, perhaps because he wanted to refer to the testimony of men appointed by Christ as official witnesses (Acts 1:8, 21-22; Luke 24:48).
- The disciples did not believe Mary when she told them Jesus appeared to her. In the meantime, Jesus appeared to a group of the women followers. He told them to tell His brethren to go to Galilee.
- The guards were bribed with large sums by the chief priests and elders (Sanhedrin) to say that the disciples came and took Jesus’ body away. They became false witnesses.
- Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. One is named as Cleophas. By expounding the prophecies about the Messiah from the Holy Scriptures and sharing a meal with them, Jesus helped them to understand that He was the resurrected Christ. They rushed back to the other disciples.
- The Emmaus disciples spoke to “the eleven,” which is a reference to the apostles. But that doesn’t mean all 11 apostles were present. As we continue reading Luke 24, we learn that Thomas was not present.
- Jesus appeared, and they touched Him. As the two disciples told of their experience, Jesus appeared among them all and ate food to show He can appear in physical form. He showed them the wounds in His hands, feet and pierced side, which they touched. He rebuked them for not believing those He had appeared to already.
- After eight days, Jesus appeared again—this time with Thomas present. John recounts that Jesus did many things in the presence of His disciples that convinced them He is the resurrected Christ.
- The disciples traveled to Galilee, where Jesus met them on a mountain. While in Galilee, He appeared to them by the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had already appeared to Peter three times.
- Christ catches fishermen’s attention. While waiting for Jesus to show Himself, Peter and six others decided to go to work, but didn’t catch anything. Then Jesus miraculously filled their net with 153 large fish.
- More than 500 brethren saw Christ in Galilee, most of whom were still alive when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15:6 some 30 years later.
- Disbelieving James and Jude: Initially, Jesus’ brothers did not believe He was the Christ (John 7:3-5). Although not directly recorded in the Gospels, Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to His half brother James. By the time the conference recorded in Acts 15 took place, James was the pastor of the congregation at Jerusalem. He had become a fervent follower of the risen Christ, along with at least one other brother, Jude.
- Additional disciples saw Christ: As mentioned by Paul, these may be those who, in addition to the 12, made up the 120 disciples in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost, A.D. 31. As we have seen, there were over 500 other brethren who had already witnessed the resurrected Jesus in Galilee.
- The apostles returned to Jerusalem and continued to be instructed by Christ until the 40 days were finished (Acts 1:1-8). He told them not to leave Jerusalem until they had received the Holy Spirit, which happened on Pentecost. Great growth came as a result of the miraculous signs and preaching of the apostles.
- Vicious enemy becomes defender: Paul gave his own name as the final eyewitness. As a zealous Pharisee, he had violently persecuted Christians (Galatians 1:13-14; Acts 8:3). He witnessed Stephen’s martyrdom. On the way to Damascus to capture and throw believers into prison, he was struck blind when Christ appeared to him. Christ called him to a new life as a promoter of the faith he had tried to destroy. Paul implies he was taught by the resurrected Christ in Arabia (Galatians 1:11-17).
The events around Jesus’ resurrection were so significant and were experienced by people so diverse that they could not be denied.
We can point to prophecy fulfilled by Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection; and we can read the rock-solid testimony of eyewitnesses. Yet the ultimate proof that Jesus is the resurrected Savior of mankind is best shown by the change that takes place in our lives when He and the Father make their abode in us (John 14:23).
The living Christ in us is the incontrovertible proof of Jesus’ resurrection—He proves it daily by interacting directly and indirectly in our thoughts and in our lives. If Jesus Christ lives in us, we, too, will be glorified in a resurrection in the near future (Romans 8:9-11). Learn more about this in the article “Christ in Us: How Does He Live in You?”