In considering the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, it is important to avoid giving the impression that the Christian faith is based on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.
The Christian faith is based on the event of the resurrection.
It is not based on the evidence for the resurrection.
This distinction is crucial.
The Christian faith stands or falls on the event of the resurrection. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christian is a myth, and we may as well forget it.
But the Christian faith does not stand or fall on the evidence for the resurrection.
There are many real events in history for which the historical evidence is slim or nonexistent (in fact, when you think about it, most events in history are of this character). But they did actually happen. We just have no way of proving that they happened.
Thus, it is entirely conceivable that the resurrection of Jesus was a real event of history, but there is no way of proving this historically. I think that in fact the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is good—remarkably good. But the evidence is not the basis of the Christian faith. Should the evidence be refuted somehow, the Christian faith would not be refuted. It would only mean that one could not prove historically that the Christian faith is true.
In point of fact we can know that Jesus rose from the dead wholly apart from a consideration of the historical evidence. The simplest Christian, who has neither the opportunity nor wherewithal to conduct a historical investigation of Jesus’ resurrection, can know with assurance that Jesus is risen because God’s Spirit bears unmistakable witness to him that it is so. And any non-Christian who is truly seeking to know the truth about God and life can also be sure that Jesus is risen because God’s Spirit will lead him to a personal relationship with the risen Lord.
Thus, there are really two avenues to a knowledge of the fact of the resurrection: the avenue of the Spirit and the avenue of historical inquiry. The former provides a spiritual certainty of the resurrection, whereas the latter provides a rational certainty of the resurrection. Ideally these ought to coincide, the Spirit working through the rational power of the evidence and the evidence undergirding the witness of the Spirit. But even if the historical avenue proved inaccessible, the avenue of the Spirit to a knowledge of the resurrection would remain open and independent.
If the evidence for the resurrection is inadequate, then we cannot prove the resurrection to be an event of history. But God’s Spirit still furnishes the unmistakable conviction that the resurrection occurred and that Jesus lives today. Therefore, whatever the state of the evidence, we can be sure that the resurrection is an event of history. Ultimately then, we must come to grips, not with historical evidence, important as this may be, but with the Living Lord Himself.