Christianity is falsifiable. That is, if you can disprove the resurrection of Christ, then Christianity is not true (see I Corinthians 15:12-19).
Over the centuries, many skeptics have tried to debunk the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus. A firm denial of the supernatural (especially miracles) drove the rise of naturalism (a belief that the natural world is all there is) and modernism (a period characterized by scientific advancement and application to everyday life) in the 19th & 20th centuries. “Only what can be shown empirically (by the senses, scientific observation) is true,” they concluded.
However, historical investigation is still scientific. Even Jerry Coyne in his book Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible states,
“…sometimes the “tests” of hypotheses don’t involve experiments, but rather observations – often of things that occurred long ago… Historical reconstruction is a perfectly valid way of doing science, so long as we can use observations to test our ideas…”Jerry A. Coyne, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, p. 32.
And, when it comes to the central, falsifiable tenet of Christianity (the resurrection), “scientific investigation” is on the side of believers.
What is the historical, scientific proof of Jesus Christ’s resurrection?
- Jesus actually died on the Cross. Testimony of his crucifixion is not only recorded in the Gospels, but in the writings of Josephus (AD 37-100), an ancient historian, and Tacitus (AD 56-117), a Roman senator and historian. Further “circumstantial evidence” is found in the Gospel of John. John Lennox, comments on John’s record of the “blood and water” that flowed from Jesus’s side:
“This shows that massive blood-clotting had taken place in the main arteries, indicating Jesus had died even before the spear-thrust. Since John could not have known the pathological significance of this, it is a powerful piece of circumstantial evidence of Jesus’ death…”John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything?, p. 92.
- Jesus was buried. The Gospels tell us that the body of Jesus was buried in an unused, private tomb (not cast into a common grave as would have been typical for common criminals). This supports the claims that (1) his disciples knew where he had been buried and that (2) his disciples knew that his was the only body that had been buried there (i.e., his missing body wouldn’t have been confused with any other since it had been an unused tomb until that point). Matthew also records the appointing of a “watch” to prevent the disciples from stealing the body and claiming he had risen:
“Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate,Matthew 27:62-66
Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again.
Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first.
Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can.
So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch.”
For what possible reason would the early Christians have included this detail (which could have been used to undermine their claims of the resurrection) if the resurrection did not, in fact, happen?
- The tomb where Jesus had been buried was empty. The first “reports” of the empty tomb were the soldiers who had been on watch (see Matthew 28:11-15). This sets up a circulating claim that the disciples had actually stolen the body from the tomb. Again, why report a story that seems to set up for full deniability the early Christian’s claim that Jesus had risen?! Again, Lennox writes,
“As propaganda coming from the enemies of Christ, the circulation of this story is historical evidence of the highest quality that the empty tomb of Jesus was a fact.” [Emphasis in original]Lennox, p. 94.
The early Christians had no trouble reporting this account because it was the report of a false report! It could not nullify the overwhelming evidence for the resurrection.
- There were multiple eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus. One of the most remarkable claims of the early Church was that women were the first to see and report Jesus’s resurrection.
“Each gospel states that the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection were women. Women’s low social status [in that culture] meant that their testimony was not admissible evidence in court. There was no possible advantage to the church to recount that all the first witnesses were women. It could only have undermined the credibility of the testimony. The only possible explanation for why women were depicted as meeting Jesus first is if they really had.”Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, p. 213.
Beside this, the earliest written accounts of people seeing the resurrected Christ are not found in the Gospels, but in Paul’s letters. First Corinthians was written in the early- to mid-50s. In chapter 15, Paul states that what he had delivered to the Corinthian church had been faithfully passed down to him (15:1-4) and could be corroborated with eyewitnesses that were still alive at that time (15:6).
Skeptics will claim that during the first century there were many “would-be messiahs” who attempted to raise up movements, but who were ultimately put to death. However,
“In not one single case do we hear the slightest mention of the disappointed followers claiming that their hero had been raised from the dead. They knew better. Resurrection was not a private event. Jewish revolutionaries whose leader had been executed by the authorities, and who managed to escape arrest themselves, had two options: give up the revolution, or find another leader. Claiming that the original leader was alive again simply was not an option. Unless, of course, he was.”N.T. Wright, Who was Jesus?, p. 63 (quoted in Keller, The Reason for God, p. 216).
Add to this the centuries of testimonies to changed lives and bettered societies. Furthermore, there can be no other rational explanation for the explosive growth and continued existence of Christianity except that the resurrection indeed happened as reported.
The resurrection of Jesus is, therefore, not only the theological linchpin of Christianity, it is an historical fact.
“He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!”