Opinion: Why I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus
This was originally published in March 1983.
Why do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus?
I will only mention two of several reasons, one more strictly historical, and one more personal and subjective.
1) There is a general consensus that the apostles founded the church at Jerusalem by preaching the resurrection of Jesus. But it would have been impossible for the apostles to have preached such a message even for an hour if the rulers in Jerusalem, who had every reason to silence this message, could have pointed to the occupied tomb of Jesus.
But the fact is that the Christian church did originate in Jerusalem through the preaching of the resurrection. To be sure, the Jewish leaders tried to silence the message but there is no evidence at all that they produced the dead body of Jesus. Instead, they started the rumor that the disciples had come at night and stolen the body (Matthew 28:11-15, and Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho,” ch. 108). But nobody today takes this rumor seriously because it suffers the total objection that the apostles would be preaching at the risk of their lives what they knew to be a fraud. The apostles had been ready to call it quits after the death of Jesus (Luke 24:21). Their hopes had been dashed. Then, in a few weeks, all of them, with unbounded joy and conviction, were risking their lives preaching what they knew to be false, or they suffered from profound and life-long illusions, or the church arose right next to the occupied tomb.
But all of these alternatives are very improbable. It is not probable that they risked their lives with zeal and love for a hoax they just invented. Nor is it probable that 500 people hallucinated at the same time (1 Corinthians 15:6). And the preaching of the resurrection could not have lasted one hour beside the occupied tomb of Jesus.
Therefore, the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead is very strong. There are other sorts of evidence that would confirm this conclusion and I would refer you to several books for a fuller treatment: Frank Morison, “Who Moved the Stone?“; J.N.D. Anderson, “The Evidence for the Resurrection“; and Daniel Fuller, “Easter Faith and History” (pp. 145-262).
2) A second kind of evidence is more subjective but no less real and no less true to life. According to John 17:20, Jesus knew that after he was gone many people would come to believe in him through the word of the apostles. So the verification of Jesus’ resurrection is really a problem of crediting witnesses. Peter and Paul and Matthew and John claimed to be witnesses of the risen Christ. Now how shall we decide if they are deluded or deceptive or trustworthy?
Skeptics may say there is no way to decide, and throw in the towel. But too much is at stake to give up with the skeptics. Granted, the assurance of faith is not the same as the certainties of mathematical logic, but too much is at stake to shoot in the dark. We must weigh the evidences and decide. Almost all of life is like that — from hiring baby-sitters to driving cars. We live by probabilities and we bank our life on people every day.
Critics may say that the Biblical witnesses discredit themselves with bias and contradictions. But surely you can’t rule out a witness for the resurrection because he believes in it. That’s like deciding the issue before you have heard the evidence, since more than likely those who did see it would believe it. As for the charge of contradictions, it may be that apparent discrepancies (like one angel vs. two angels at the tomb, Mark 16:15; Luke 24:4) are owing to different but not disparate ways of reporting the same perceived reality. But even if we admitted minor discrepancies in detail, a witness is not discredited for that, especially if his testimony is largely corroborated by others.
So how shall we credit these witnesses?
Persons win our trust by the beauty of their character. When all we have is their writings (and that is all we have), then we must try to perceive the spirit and the purpose of the writer in his message. If we detect a spirit of humility and integrity and sobriety and a purpose of love and truth, then we will give credence to the author. If we detect a conniving, duplicitous, self-seeking attitude, we will tend to discredit what he said.
Yes, this is subjective. But it is not entirely arbitrary and it is open to correction. This is the way we make many decisions. We form judgments about people’s character and then we venture something on their word.
In my life with Peter, Paul, Matthew and John, they have won my respect with their deep and perceptive assessments of the human condition, their pursuit of truth, their submission to the Creator and their ethic of love. I find it morally impossible to discredit their testimony to the resurrection as delusion or deception.
John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. He is author of more than 50 books, including “Reading the Bible Supernaturally.”
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