Is Easter believable? That’s a question people have been asking for 2000 years. It may be a question you’re asking. Or it may be a question your friends or family are asking and you wish you had better answers.
Well, this article won’t pretend to give you all the answers you’re after, whatever your current view of Jesus. But it will summarise some key arguments for thinking Easter is believable—that Jesus rose again—so you can draw your own conclusions. It will do so by looking at our earliest evidence for the resurrection, what we call 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.
How early is this source?
I say, ‘what we call’ 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 because, although the letter itself was written by the Apostle Paul in the mid-50s AD, the source these particular verses is based on probably dates back to the mid-30s AD, only a few years after the events it describes.
Although the letter itself was written by the Apostle Paul in the mid-50s AD, the source these particular verses is based on probably dates back to the mid-30s.
Paul is writing to the church he founded in Corinth to remind them of the ‘gospel’—good news—he first preached to them when he was there.
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you have received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. (1 Cor 15:1-2)
But that message he preached to them was something he himself had received earlier.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance … (1 Cor 15:3a)
This message—which Paul is about to summarise—is something he ‘received’ and ‘passed on.’ It is not something he formulated himself, but pre-existing content he delivered. What we are about to read in verses 3-7 are not Paul’s words but older words.
How much older? How far does this summary of the gospel go back? Probably a very long way, maybe even as close as a year after the events it describes. When we read sermons in the book of Acts that were given only a year or two after Jesus’ death, they look like they were based on this summary. As a result, academics of all stripes—Christian and not—think verses 3-7 contain eyewitness evidence from very close to Jesus’ lifetime. That makes it much less likely to have been tampered with or misremembered.
What do the witnesses say happened to Jesus?
First, they say he died.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures … (1 Corinthians 15:3)
That Jesus died is incontrovertible. Pontius Pilate is a well-known figure from ancient history, and there is no dispute that he had the Jewish teacher and purported miracle-worker, Jesus of Nazareth, executed by crucifixion. This is attested to by biblical sources (the New Testament letters and Gospels) and extrabiblical sources (the Jewish historian Josephus, and Roman sources Tacitus and Pliny). There is no doubt that Jesus died, and how.
But the second thing the witnesses say is that he rose again.
… that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures … (1 Corinthians 15:4)
On what grounds do they say this?
Basically, that they saw it.
… and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:5-8)
Here, ‘Cephas’ is the Aramaic name for Peter, one of Jesus’ first disciples, and ‘the Twelve’ is Jesus’ inner-circle of disciples. The claim in verse 5 is that Peter saw Jesus before the other disciples, but then they saw him too. This is corroborated by Luke (Luke 24:34), who interviewed numerous eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, and also by Matthew and John who experienced these things first hand.
Then, Jesus appeared to 500 other people after he died—some of whom were dead at the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, but most of whom were still alive. We don’t have any corroborating evidence for these witnesses. But since so many of them were still alive at the time of writing, they could have been questioned about their testimonies, giving a chance to test their evidence in that way.
Finally, Jesus appeared to his brother James; then to all the disciples; and then to Paul, on the Damascus road. That is the evidence.
Why should we believe this evidence?
Why should we believe this evidence? Isn’t it more sensible to think that these accounts were either made up, or that the disciples were in such a grief-stricken and suggestible state at the time of Jesus’ death that a rumour somehow spread that he was alive again and they believed it?
Let’s deal with these alternatives.
The accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection agree on the main points but differ on the details … This is what we would expect from people who saw the same thing but then wrote their own version.
First, if the accounts were made up, they are all very similar. Of course, there could have been collusion, but then we would expect the accounts to be more similar. Instead, all the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection agree on the main points but differ on the details (not disagree, just have different emphases). This is what we would expect from people who saw the same thing but then wrote their own version.
Second, if the accounts were made up, why were the disciples willing to suffer for them later? According to tradition, all ‘the Twelve’ were either murdered or imprisoned for their claims that Jesus rose again. Why would they do that if they knew it was a lie?
Third, if the accounts were made up, it would have been so easy to disprove them at the time. We know the rumour that Jesus had risen to life spread quickly. What could have been easier from a Roman perspective than to disprove the claim by producing the body? They had his body in the tomb—why not just bring it out? But they didn’t. Why? Because they mustn’t have had it. So where was it? No one could have stolen it: it was heavily guarded. Which leaves the witnesses’ explanation: Jesus left the tomb under his own steam.
Well, what if the accounts were just honestly mistaken? A rumour somehow spread that Jesus had been raised, and his grief-stricken and suggestible disciples believed it?
This seems more plausible than the disciples inventing their claims. But it still doesn’t explain things fully. People will believe rumours when it costs them nothing to do so, but the disciples were adamant about their claims to the point of death. That makes you think they had better evidence than just rumours. Further, the Romans producing Jesus’ body would have been just as effective at shutting down deluded claims as colluded ones. Yet, they didn’t.
Does this evidence prove Jesus rose from the dead?
Of course not—not absolutely. As with all historical claims, the evidence leaves room for doubt.
But is that doubt reasonable? That’s questionable. And is Easter believable? Absolutely. Is it the best explanation of the evidence? In my view, it is.
If you’re not yet a Christian, Jesus is at least worth another look. And if you are a Christian, you have good reasons to believe what you believe—and to share it with others.
This article is a summary of a talk recently given at City Bible Forum Legal.
 ‘The earliest record of these appearances is to be found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, a tradition that Paul ‘received’ after his apostolic call, certainly not later than his visit to Jerusalem in 35 CE, when he saw Cephas (Peter) and James (Gal. 1:18-19), who, like him, were recipients of appearances.’ The Oxford Companion to the Bible; Eds. Metzer & Coogan (Oxford, 1993), p 647.
 For example, Gerd Lüdemann, NT professor at Göttingen and atheist writes: ‘… the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years… the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor.15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE.’ The Resurrection of Jesus, trans. by Bowden (Fortress, 1994), pp 171-72.