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Why Are the Gospel Accounts of the Resurrection Credible?
Central to all of Christianity—ancient and modern—are the testimonies that Jesus Christ suffered and died for our sins, being crucified and then resurrected on the third day. According to the Prophet Joseph Smith, “The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, ‘that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;’ and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.”1
For Christians worldwide, it is impossible to avoid the significance of this greatest of all miracles. The Apostle Paul likewise saw this as the core message of the Gospel.2 “And if Christ be not risen,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Given the importance of such a miracle, it should come as no surprise that the earliest Christians were careful to ensure they left behind credible accounts of the Resurrection as part of the canonical Gospels.
As N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird observe, “It is important to think historically about how the early traditions [about the resurrection] might have developed. By themselves, neither the empty tomb nor the resurrection appearances alone could have generated belief in Jesus’ resurrection.”3 Had there been no empty tomb, the post-death appearances of Jesus could have been more easily dismissed as visionary manifestations of His spirit or ghost. And had there been no appearance of Jesus to His disciples, the rumor that Jesus’s body had been stolen would have provided a straightforward explanation for the empty tomb. Yet, when viewed together, these two crucial historical events, recorded in great detail in the New Testament Gospel accounts, provide a strong basis for belief.
The Empty Tomb
First, Wright and Bird note how the discovery of the empty tomb, as recorded in the four Gospels, is valuable evidence for the Resurrection. “The burial of Jesus, and the discovery of the empty tomb,” they observed, “can be regarded as historically solid.”4
While many victims of crucifixion did not receive a proper burial, “Roman officials were known to release the bodies of condemned criminals to their families particularly during festivals” and “were probably inclined more often than not to support Jewish burial customs” to avoid further commotion.5 Such a detail is present in the Gospels, as seen when Joseph of Arimathea requested the body of Jesus (during a Jewish festival) and then Pilate allowed Jesus to be buried properly.6
The very mention of Joseph of Arimathea is also noteworthy. He was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin who, until this point in the Gospels, wasn’t mentioned at all. Had the story of the burial and Resurrection been invented at a later date, it is unlikely that a Jewish leader would have been mentioned in such a positive light, as he could have easily been swapped out for another, better-known disciple.7
The earliest rumors recorded in Matthew 27:64 about an empty tomb also give credibility to the account of the Resurrection: “If nobody had suggested such a thing” prior to Matthew writing his Gospel, Wright and Bird explain, “it is difficult to imagine the Christians putting the idea into people’s heads by making up tales that said they had.” Such reports of theft were even still being told in the second century AD, “which of course assumes that the tomb was empty and the body was not to be found.”8 Based on these details, scholars argue that the most credible conclusion is that the tomb was actually found empty.9
The New Testament Eyewitnesses
The most compelling witnesses to the Resurrection, however, come from those who personally saw the risen Jesus with their own eyes. Without these key witnesses, the empty tomb could easily be dismissed as fanciful or as a theft.
Evidence exists that each Gospel record reflects direct, eyewitness accounts of the discovery of the tomb and of seeing the resurrected Lord.10 For instance, Wright and Bird note that these Gospel accounts “remain scripturally unadorned.”11 But had these New Testament reports been invented at a later date, it is likely that they would appeal to any number of Old Testament prophetic scriptures (such as Ezekiel 37:2–6 or Daniel 12:2–3). “Something else was shaping the narrative: a personal encounter to which witness was borne, a witness which was thereby rooted in history.”12
Early and robust traditions attribute the first and fourth of the New Testament Gospels to the Apostles Matthew and John.13 These Apostles were themselves among those who saw the resurrected Jesus multiple times: in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36–43; John 20:19–29), on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1–14 ), up in the designated mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16–20), and at His ascension into heaven from the Mount of Olives between Jerusalem and Bethany (Luke 24:50; Acts 1:10–12). Their testimonies are sealed with apostolic authority based on repeated eyewitness experiences.
The wide breadth of witnesses is also telling. In addition to his own witness, Paul told the Corinthians that Peter, the Twelve Apostles, James the brother of Jesus, and a group of five hundred people had also seen and borne testimony that Jesus Christ was resurrected (see 1 Corinthians 15:5–8).14 Paul even noted that “the greater part [of the eyewitnesses] remain unto this present,” allowing those who doubted his experience to check with the still-living testators (1 Corinthians 15:6). In short, the Resurrection was still in the living memory of the Church and could not be dismissed without ignoring multitudes of people who had seen and heard the resurrected Savior for themselves.
It is also significant that in the Gospel accounts, the very first witnesses to the Resurrection were the faithful women who attended Jesus’s tomb on Sunday morning.15 It was to these disciples that the angel declared, “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen” (Luke 24:5–6), and it was these same women to whom Jesus personally appeared shortly after. In the ancient world, women were viewed as unreliable witnesses and therefore could not offer a legally binding testimony. As such, it is implausible that a fabricated story in antiquity would rely on women as the key initial witnesses.16
Furthermore, a wide variety of beliefs about life after death existed in both Judaism and the wider Greco-Roman world at the time. Each tradition accepted the existence of spirits or ghosts, yet the eyewitnesses make it clear that they did not simply have a visionary experience in which the spirit of Jesus came to them.17 Jesus Himself addressed this concern when He asked His disciples, “Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (Luke 24:38–39, emphasis added).18
Further Eyewitnesses in Restoration Scripture
In addition to having these important biblical witnesses, Latter-day Saints are blessed with even more witnesses of Jesus Christ’s Atonement and Resurrection. In the Book of Mormon, a multitude of “about two thousand and five hundred souls” saw, heard, and touched Jesus on the first day of His postmortal ministry in the Americas (3 Nephi 11:7–17; 17:25). This multitude then spread the word so that on the following day when He appeared again, “the multitude was so great that they did cause that they should be separated into twelve bodies” (3 Nephi 19:5).19 Jesus would again minister unto the twelve whom He had selected (3 Nephi 27), and three centuries later, He ministered to the prophets and record makers Mormon and Moroni (Mormon 1:15; Ether 12:39).
Other witnesses of the Resurrection appear in modern times. Joseph Smith saw God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ in the Sacred Grove (see Joseph Smith—History 1:15–20), and Christ appeared, over at least ten occasions, to a total of at least twenty-three other people in Kirtland, Ohio.20 The reality of the Lord’s Resurrection has continuously been declared by the Latter-day prophets and apostles of Jesus Christ unto the entire world.21
Because of the many reports given of the Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, people everywhere can joyously recognize and embrace the powerful and eternal consequences of these two events that benefit the entire human family. As President Dallin H. Oaks taught, “The Resurrection gives us the perspective and the strength to endure the mortal challenges faced by each of us and those we love. It gives us a new way to view the physical, mental, or emotional deficiencies we have at birth or acquire during mortal life. It gives us the strength to endure sorrows, failures, and frustrations. Because each of us has an assured resurrection, we know that these mortal deficiencies and oppositions are only temporary.”22
Knowledge of the Resurrection gives people “reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). The prophet Abinadi taught, “And if Christ had not risen from the dead … there could have been no resurrection. But there is a resurrection, therefore the grave hath no victory, and the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ,” swallowed up “in the hopes of glory” (Mosiah 16:7–8; Alma 22:14). Because Jesus Christ rose from the dead, the promise of resurrection is guaranteed to all of God’s children.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us hope. It is the reason that we can have hope even as we face challenges and trials. Because of the Resurrection, we can see our loved ones again. The parent who has lost a child, the child who has lost their parents, those who have never known their ancestors—all of these will be able to have the hope of a joyous reunion with them and the Lord in a future day.
Ultimately, the hope of the Resurrection is one of peace and joy: “He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it” (Isaiah 25:8; c.f. Revelation 21:4).23 Such is the promise of the Savior Jesus Christ: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Julie M. Smith, “The Resurrection,” in New Testament History, Culture, and Society: A Background to the Texts of the New Testament, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2019), 377–392.
Andrew C. Skinner, “In Praise of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ: The Culmination of His Saving Work,” in Thou Art the Christ, the Son of the Living God: The Person and Work of Jesus in the New Testament, ed. Eric D. Huntsman, Lincoln H. Blumell, and Tyler J. Griffin (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2018), 26–48.
J. Peter Hansen, “Paul the Apostle: Champion of the Doctrine of the Resurrection,” in Go Ye into All the World: Messages of the New Testament Apostles, ed. Ray L. Huntington, Patty Smith, Thomas A. Wayment, and Jerome M. Perkins (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2002), 13–26.
- 1. “Questions and Answers, 8 May 1838,” p. 44, The Joseph Smith Papers, online at josephsmithpapers.org.
- 2. Julie M. Smith notes that “Paul begins [1 Corinthians 15] by saying that he conveyed to the audience ‘first of all’ (15:3) the message of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. In this context ‘first of all’ signals the importance (not necessarily the chronology) of this message and so constitutes Paul’s belief in the prime relevance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Julie M. Smith, “The Resurrection,” in New Testament History, Culture, and Society: A Background to the Texts of the New Testament, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2019), 378. For a more thorough analysis of Paul’s preaching of the Resurrection of Jesus, see N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird, The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic; London, UK: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2019), 296–315; J. Peter Hansen, “Paul the Apostle: Champion of the Doctrine of the Resurrection,” in Go Ye into All the World: Messages of the New Testament Apostles, ed. Ray L. Huntington, Patty Smith, Thomas A. Wayment, and Jerome M. Perkins (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2002), 13–26.
- 3. Wright and Bird, New Testament in Its World, 321. See also N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 321–326.
- 4. Wright and Bird, New Testament in Its World, 317.
- 5. Wright and Bird, New Testament in Its World, 317–318.
- 6. See Matthew 27:57–60; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:50–56; John 19:38–42.
- 7. Wright and Bird, New Testament in Its World, 318.
- 8. Wright and Bird, New Testament in Its World, 318, 325. See Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 108. See also William Lane Craig, “The Empty Tomb of Jesus,” in Gospel Perspectives: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels, 6 vols., ed. R. T. France and David Wenham (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1981), 2:193–194.
- 9. For another discussion on the reality of the empty tomb, see Craig, “Empty Tomb of Jesus,” 173–200.
- 10. See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017).
- 11. Wright and Bird, New Testament in Its World, 317.
- 12. Wright and Bird, New Testament in Its World, 317. See also Craig, “Empty Tomb of Jesus,” 191–192.
- 13. Early church fathers including Papias, Irenaeus, and Eusebius connected these two Gospels to the corresponding Apostle for which they are named. While modern scholarship has reexamined many aspects of biblical authorship, there are still many compelling arguments for the traditional attribution for each account. For arguments in favor of the authorship of Matthew and John, specifically, see W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1971), clxxvii–clxxxvi; and C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Testimony of John,” in Studies in Scripture, vol. 5 of 8, The Gospels, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1986), 110, respectively.
- 14. For a brief discussion on the witnesses of the Resurrection, see Andrew C. Skinner, “In Praise of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ: The Culmination of His Saving Work,” in Thou Art the Christ, the Son of the Living God: The Person and Work of Jesus in the New Testament, ed. Eric D. Huntsman, Lincoln H. Blumell, and Tyler J. Griffin (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2018), 43–47.
- 15. See Matthew 28:1–10, Mark 16:1–11, Luke 24:1–11, and John 20:1–18.
- 16. See Wright and Bird, New Testament in Its World, 319: “The fact that a woman’s testimony was legally worthless in the ancient world means that it would not constitute the surest grounds to fabricate a story if one wanted to win widespread approval.” See also Craig, “Empty Tomb of Jesus,” 192.
- 17. See Wright and Bird, New Testament in Its World, 264–295, and N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 133–137, for a discussion of the varying beliefs about life after death in New Testament times. Wright and Bird, New Testament in Its World, 320, discusses the Resurrection accounts in light of the beliefs about spirits or ghosts.
- 18. For a discussion of the phrase “flesh and bones” in Luke 24, especially contrasted with the phrase “flesh and blood” in 1 Corinthians 15:50, see William Lane Craig, “The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus,” in Gospel Perspectives, 1:68–70.
- 19. Joshua Gehly has observed, “if the Book of Mormon is a modern miracle and inspired from heaven, then Jesus Christ is definitively alive and ascended into heaven. The truth of the Book of Mormon would overwhelmingly strengthen the veracity of New Testament proclamations. It would document a cross-continental, independent attestation of the risen Christ. The Book of Mormon … holds the keys to the strongest evidence in support of Jesus Christ ever offered to mankind.” Joshua Gehly, Witnessing Miracles: Historical Evidence for the Resurrection and the Book of Mormon (Monongahela, PA: The Church of Jesus Christ, 2022), 15.
- 20. See Karl Ricks Anderson, The Savior in Kirtland: Personal Accounts of Divine Manifestations (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012), for a thorough analysis of these miraculous appearances of Jesus.
- 21. See The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Twelve Apostles for a clear declaration of Jesus’s living, resurrected status as the Son of God.
- 22. Dallin H. Oaks, “What Has Our Savior Done for Us?” April 2021 general conference.
- 23. See David Larson, “Death Being Swallowed Up in Netzach in the Bible and the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 55, no. 4 (2016): 123–134; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Swallowed Up in Netzach,” Evidence #0332, April 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
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