The Resurrection of Jesus Christ/Part 2

By: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon; ©1996
The Oxford American Dictionary defines a witness as “a person who gives evidence in court” or “a person who is present at an event in order to testify to the fact that it took place.” According to this, a witness is not giving hearsay; he is giving “something that serves as evidence.” It is not opinion or conjecture or anything less than evidence personally and carefully attested to by one who saw it.

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Why is the testimony of the people who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection compelling evidence?

In considering those who were eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection appearances, here are three reasons their testimony offers important evidence.

1) Many disciples and all of the apostles testified that they were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection.

The Oxford American Dictionary defines a witness as “a person who gives evidence in court” or “a person who is present at an event in order to testify to the fact that it took place.” According to this, a witness is not giving hearsay; he is giving “something that serves as evidence.” It is not opinion or conjecture or anything less than evidence personally and carefully attested to by one who saw it. As far as Jesus Christ rising from the dead is concerned, the method required to confirm it is not extraordinary. A dead man who came to life could give the very same evidence of his being alive as any living person could. So the witnesses only need to be able to distinguish a dead man from a living man. How difficult is this? Is there anyone who would doubt their ability to distinguish a living man from a dead one?

In their early preaching, all the apostles repeatedly stressed the eyewitness nature of the resurrection to both Jew and Gentile, believer and skeptic alike:

“This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses (Acts 2:32).
“The one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses (Acts 3:15).
“The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death … and we are witnesses of these things” (Acts 5:30, 32).
The apostle John stressed that, “He who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true (John 19:35). He also wrote, “This is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his witness is true” (John 21:24).
The apostle Peter emphasizes that, “We did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16).

To their hearers the apostles repeatedly stressed that the facts of Christ’s death and resurrection were known far and wide. “You know what has happened,” they said (Acts 10:37). While on trial, Paul emphasized the empirical nature of the case for Christ’s resurrection, stating that he spoke words “of sober truth” and that all of “this has not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:25-26: cf., 2:22).

Writing in his epistles years later, the apostle John continued to emphasize the empirical, eyewitness nature of the case for the resurrection. He knew he had seen the risen Jesus and nothing in the 40-year intervening period had changed his mind:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at [“ho heorakamen tois ophthalmois hemon ho estheasametha; to scrutinize; examine carefully; to behold intelligently; the two verbs express a ‘definite investigation by the observer’” (Westcott) [1]] and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard…. (1 John 1:1-3)

The careful historical researcher and physician, the apostle Luke, also stressed that his own reporting came from eyewitnesses:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4). (The Greek word he uses for “eyewitnesses” in Luke 1:2, autoptes, means, “one who beholds for himself.”)

Referring to Jesus, Luke says, “After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).

In criminal trials today, most juries are convinced on the basis of two eyewitnesses to an event and sometimes by only one. But any modern trial lawyer is simply ecstatic when he has three eyewitnesses; his chances for a conviction rise to 99 percent.[2] For the resurrection we have far more than three eyewitnesses. We have such an abundance of eyewitness testimony the chances are excellent that a modern jury would conclude in favor of the resurrection, even though it happened 2,000 years ago.

2) The disciples followed Jewish law which commanded them to be truthful witnesses.

The fact the apostles constantly appealed to such eyewitness testimony is all the more believable in light of their own unique Jewish heritage. No religion has ever stressed the importance of truth or a truthful testimony more than the Jewish religion.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God repeatedly warned His people to be truthful; a false witness was to be considered evil and worthy of punishment. Each of the apostles knew beyond doubt that if they were giving false testimony concerning the resurrection of Christ, not only were they guilty of a serious offense for which they might be stoned to death, they were also false witnesses against God Himself, for which they would give account in the next life.

Consider how the commandments of their own law, as given by God, would encourage sober reporting on the part of the apostles: “You shall not bear false witness…” (Ex. 20:16); “you shall not bear a false report; do not join your hand with a wicked man to be a malicious witness” (Ex. 23:1); “on the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness” (Deut. 17:6); “a single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed” (Deut. 19:15); “a false witness will not go unpunished, and he who tells lies will not escape…. he who tells lies will perish” (Prov. 19:5, 9).

All this explains why the apostle Paul emphasized the importance of being certain that Christ was risen from the dead and the severe consequences of a false testimony: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that he raised Christ, whom He did not raise… (1 Cor. 15:14-15).

3) The apostles faced persecution and eventual martyrdom for giving testimony to Jesus’ resurrection.

Consider the often malicious opposition encountered by these eyewitnesses. Would they repeatedly endure persecution, prison, risking their lives, and face death, for what they knew was a lie? Here is a small sampling of what these witnesses went through.

“And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees, came upon them, being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them, and put them in jail… (Acts 4:1-3).
“After calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus….” (Acts 5:40).
“And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him [Stephen] to death. And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem… Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison” (Acts 8:1, 3).
“Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword…. He proceeded to arrest Peter also” (Acts 12:1-3).

In spite of all this persecution, imprisonment, and even execution, “every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ [i.e., the risen Messiah]” (Acts 5:42). These men not only continued to proclaim that they were direct eyewitnesses of the risen Christ but that the very Old Testament prophets (“Of Him all the prophets bear witness” [Acts 10:43, cf., Rom. 3:21]) and God Himself (1 John 5:9-10) were also witnesses of the risen Christ.

One reason we can trust this testimony is because all but one of the apostles died for their belief that Jesus Christ had been resurrected – and they faced death by some of the most painful, cruelest methods known to man: James, the brother of Jesus was stoned to death by Ananias the High Priest; Peter, Andrew, Philip, Simon, Bartholomew, and James, the son of Alphaeus, were all crucified; Matthew and James, the son of Zebedee were put to death by the sword; Thaddaeus was killed by arrows, and Thomas died by a spear thrust.[3] Only the apostle John apparently died a natural death.

These men could be harassed, thrown in prison, flogged, beaten, and killed, but they could not be made to deny their conviction that Christ rose again.

Anyone who has read texts such as the classic Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and more recent versions such as By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs of the 20th Century (1979) by James and Marti Hefley knows that Christians around the world can be tortured and killed, but they do not deny that Christ is the risen Lord and Savior.

How do the extent and nature of the resurrection appearances prove Jesus rose from the dead?

We have already established that Jesus died on the cross [see Part 1]. If it is known that a dead person is subsequently seen alive by many credible eyewitnesses, then no other conclusion exists than that such a person has been raised from the dead.

In the Gospels, we find 12 separate appearances of the resurrected Christ between the period of Easter morning and His ascension 40 days later, although there were undoubtedly more. These include Christ being seen by over 500 people at least once, to the apostles several times, and at various times to other disciples as well. As theologian Michael Green observes:

The appearances of Jesus are as well authenticated as anything in antiquity…. There can be no rational doubt that they occurred, and that the main reason why Christians became sure of the resurrection in the earliest days was just this. They could say with assurance, “We have seen the Lord.” They knew it was he.[4]

Dr. William Lane Craig comments,

Indeed, so strong is the evidence for these appearances that Wolfhart Pannenberg, perhaps the world’s greatest living systematic theologian, has rocked modern, skeptical German theology by building his entire theology precisely on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus as supplied in Paul’s list of appearances.[5]

These appearances are as follows:

  1. To the women as they returned from the tomb after seeing the angel who informed them Christ had risen (Matt. 28:1-10).
  2. To Mary Magdalene at the tomb, probably during her second visit to the tomb that morning (John 20:10-18; Mark 16:9).
  3. To Peter sometime before the evening of the resurrection day (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5).
  4. To Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus on Easter afternoon (Mark 16:12; Luke 24:13-35).
  5. To ten of the apostles (Thomas is absent) and others whose names are not given gathered together at their evening meal on the eve of Easter day (Luke 24:36-40; John 20:19-23; 1 Cor. 15:5).
  6. A week later to all eleven apostles; including doubting Thomas (John 20:26-28).
  7. To a number of the disciples fishing at the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-23).
  8. To the apostles on a specific mountain in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20).
  9. To James (1 Cor. 15:7).
  10. To the apostles on the Mount of Olives at Jerusalem just prior to the ascension (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1:3-9).
  11. To 500 witnesses all at once (1 Cor. 15:6).
  12. To the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 15:8; Acts 9:1-9).

There is considerable variety concerning the circumstances, time, place, and individuals to whom Christ appeared. He appeared to women, men, groups, individuals; He appeared by an open lake, on a mountain, on the road, in the upper room with locked doors, in the country, in town, and on a hillside. Jesus did not appear just once to one person or one group of persons at one time, but to individuals and groups at different times and different locations.

In the chart that follows note the physical nature of the resurrection appearances which indicates these were not individual hallucinations or visions but actual physical appearances. Their number, circumstances, and physicality simply do not fit any of the characteristics of visions or mass hallucinations as is commonly reported by individuals who work in this area and who have compared the characteristics of hallucinations and visions with the records of the New Testament.[6]

The Twelve Appearances of Christ

Adapted from The Battle for the Resurrection (Scripture references added).[7]
Persons Saw Heard Touched Other Evidence
Mary (Magdalene; Jn. 20:10-18) X X X Empty tomb
Mary & Women (Mt. 28:1-10) X X X Empty tomb
Peter (1 Cor. 15:5, cf. Jn. 20:3-9, Lk. 24:34) X X* Empty tomb, graveclothes
John (Jn. 20:2-10) Empty tomb, graveclothes
Two disciples (Lk. 24:13-35) X X Ate with Him
Ten Apostles (Lk. 24:36-49; Jn, 20:19-23) X X X ** Death wounds
Eleven Apostles (Jn. 20:24-31) X X X** Death wounds
Seven Apostles (Jn. 21) X X Ate with Him
All Apostles (Mk. 16:14-18) X X Ate with Him
Five Hundred Brethren (1 Cor. 15:6) X X*
James (1 Cor. 15:7) X X*
All Apostles (Acts 1:4-8) X X
Paul (after Ascension; Acts 9:1-9; 1 Cor. 15:8) X X

*Implied**Offered to be touched

In fact, every appearance mentioned in the Gospels is of a physical, bodily appearance.[8] But we must also note that these were not the only appearances of Christ. After Jesus’ appearance to the skeptical Thomas, the apostle John reports that many additional miracles were performed by the resurrected Jesus in the presence of the disciples, but that these were not recorded: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).


We ought not to forget that the evidence was published to the world at the very spot where and at the very time when the event was said to have happened and that no one was able to controvert it…. At a moment when it was yet possible to test every incident, to examine every witness, and to expose every trace of fraud, the apostles openly and unhesitatingly proclaimed the fact [of Christ’s resurrection].[9]

Consider a parallel case today. Imagine dozens of startled people, all credible witnesses (with skeptics among them), claiming to have seen former President John F. Kennedy alive in a wide variety of circumstances and locations over a period of 40 days. Imagine over 500 devoted political workers, together, claiming to have seen him all at once. Imagine him giving an hour-long personal interview to two former democratic leaders and then having a leisurely dinner with his cabinet. As difficult as it would be for us to imagine that Kennedy had somehow risen from the dead, what else could be concluded?

The simple fact is that every one of these claimed appearances of President Kennedy could be – and would be – checked out. Yet this is exactly the kind of evidence we find for Jesus’ appearances. Dr. Tenney comments,

Confronting a learned and hostile hierarchy who had opposed Jesus bitterly during his lifetime, the apostles did not dare to make indefensible assertions. To claim falsely that Jesus had risen from the dead would expose them to ridicule and would invite disaster to their cause. They were too astute to offer to the public baseless legends or wild dreams as the initial proof of their new faith.[10]

What the resurrection appearances prove is that not only was Christ risen, but also that He was who He claimed to be – God incarnate: As Dr. Montgomery points out, only two possible interpretations of the resurrection exist: that given by the person raised, or that given by someone else. “Surely, if only Jesus was raised, He is in a far better position (indeed, in the only position!) to interpret or explain it.”[11] But the resurrection also proves something else – it establishes the truth of the Christian religion against all others since the veracity of the Christian faith and the resurrection are indissolubly linked.

Read Part 3


  1. In John R.W. Stott, The Epistles of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), p. 60.
  2. Personal conversation with Los Angeles Assistant District Attorney Larry Donahue, March 1990.
  3. Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale/Living Books, 1983), p. 61.
  4. Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), p. 97.
  5. William Lane Craig. The Son Rises: Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), p. 125.
  6. e.g., Leland E. Hinsie, M.D., Robert Jean Campbell, M.D., Psychiatric Dictionary, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 333-36, cf., Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus. pp. 118-19; W.J. Sparrow-Simpson, The Resurrection in Modern Thought (London, 1911), pp. 389-90; Wilbur M. Smith, Therefore Stand: Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Ml: Baker Book House, 1972), p. 365; Craig, The Son Rises, p. 117.
  7. Norman L. Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984), p. 141.
  8. Craig, The Son Rises, pp. 116-17.
  9. Wilbur M. Smith, The Supernaturalness of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1974), rpt. p. 199.
  10. Merrill Tenney, The Reality of the Resurrection (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972), pp. 123-24.
  11. John Warwick Montgomery, “The Jury Returns: A Juridical Defense of Christianity,” in John Warwick Montgomery, ed., Evidence for Faith: Deciding the God Question (Dallas: Probe/Word, 1991), p. 336.

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