Either Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, or he did not. It is either a fact that he did, or it is a fact that he did not.
To prove a statement of fact regarding an event that happened a long time ago, what is necessary is a strongly probable argument, an argument that overwhelms the opposite statement. For example: the statement “Julius Caesar existed” is certain, because it is much more highly probable that Julius Caesar existed than that he did not. The testimony establishing his existence is much stronger than any suggestion that this testimony is unreliable. Therefore, even though you or I have never laid eyes on Julius Caesar, we can say for sure that he did in fact exist.
What testimony establishes that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead? A great deal of testimony, in fact. Most of this testimony is in the New Testament.
Many historians misunderstand what the New Testament is. The New Testament is often categorized as a “religious text”–with no objective historical significance. Now, it is true that the primary author of the New Testament is God. But, in order to understand what God wants to tell us in these books, we must first understand them as human documents.
The New Testament is made up of books written by particular men at particular times. When these men give accounts of events, they provide historical sources, just like any other chronicles. They are to be believed or disbelieved according to the same standards of evidence as any other historical source. The faith teaches us that the human authors were inspired by God and therefore free from error. But is not necessary to believe this in order to conclude that Jesus certainly rose from the dead. It is simply a matter of appreciating what the human authors of the New Testament offer us as historical witnesses. Let’s consider them simply as men writing down accounts of what they saw and heard.
If we consider the human authors of the New Testament in this way, we are left with the following: There are very few events of ancient times that are recorded by as many different historical witnesses as the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. We have more written testimony about the resurrection of Jesus than we have about any of the Pharaohs of Egypt or many of the well-known historical figures of ancient Greece.
The question, then, is: The men who claimed to have seen Jesus in the flesh after He died–were they lying? If a strong case can be made that they were, then their testimony should be disregarded. But in order to demonstrate that someone is lying, it is necessary to show that the liar has something to gain by his lie, because people lie in order to benefit in some way from the deception. Or, if they were not lying, were they simply all deluded?
In the case of the men who wrote that Jesus rose from the dead, there was no benefit to lying. If they were lying, their lie led them to suffer and die. Perhaps one or two people–or even an isolated group of a larger size–might be so deluded as to die for a lie. But the witnesses to the resurrection of Christ are so numerous and diverse–not an isolated cult, but a large group of people, some of whom never met each other–that the “group hysteria” argument is impossible. It simply makes no sense to propose that all these men were willing to suffer and die for something that they knew to be a lie. Therefore, the reasonable conclusion is: Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.
Now, this does not prove that Jesus is God, or that His resurrection means that we, too, have the hope of eternal life. These latter matters are truths of faith; they cannot be proved by historical argument. The ability to believe them is a gift from God.
But the fact that Christ rose from the dead certainly helps us to assent to the Catholic faith in its entirety. That Christ rose from the dead is very strong evidence that His claims about Himself are true: He is the Son of God Who has come to lead His people to heaven by gathering them into His Church.