We know that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, because it is a verifiable fact of human history.
Let’s look at it this way. When we read the Scriptures during Holy Week, we encounter a number of unfamiliar names. Malchus, the Temple guard who lost an ear in the Garden of Gethsemane. Alexander and Rufus, the sons of Simon the Cyrenian, who helped Jesus on the way to Golgatha. Clopas, the husband of one of the women at the foot of the cross. Salome, who came to the tomb.
We might wonder why these names appear in the gospels. They appear without explanation. We hardly know anything at all about these individuals; to us they are “just names.” Why did the gospel writers throw those names in?
Simple explanation. Because the gospel writers knew them. St. Mark knew Alexander, Rufus, Clopas, and Salome. St. John knew Malchus. The gospel writers knew them personally. And the people for whom the gospel writers took the trouble to write their books—they knew Malchus, Alexander, Rufus, Clopas, and Salome, too.
So St. Mark and St. John didn’t explain who Malchus, Alexander, Rufus, Clopas, and Salome were for the same reason that I wouldn’t need to explain to you [the English-speaking people of St. Joseph’s parish, Martinsville, Virginia] who Bob Humkey, or John and Joseph Nguyen, are. You already know who they are. See what I mean?
The Holy Gospels put us right in the middle of the original Church–the living, breathing social network of the first Christians. The number of people who saw Jesus after He rose from the dead—not small. Five hundred plus. The number of ancient documents bearing witness to the widespread accounts of His appearances—not a small number of documents. The twenty-seven most reliable ones make up a familiar volume, namely…the New Testament. And there are many other documents attesting to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.
Ancient history is not a science in which anything can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. But an honest historian of the ancient world would readily acknowledge: The evidence for the fact that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead vastly outweighs any evidence to the contrary. To make the case that He did rise, you can refer to these many documents. To make the case that He didn’t, you need a vivid imagination for conspiracy theories in order to explain away these documents.
So the man rose from the dead. Fact.
What we believe—what we hold by the divine gift of faith—is this: Jesus’ rising from the dead has something to do with us. What makes us Christians is: believing that the mystery of why we exist gets resolved by the fact that this man rose from the dead.
We believe that the mysterious power Who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs, and brought us forth into the light of day, and fills our lungs with air, and spreads the stars in the sky for us at night—God. We believe that He has revealed His plan. Namely, that Jesus’ eternal life would be our eternal life. That is our faith.
The New Testament, therefore, offers us two things at the same time. 1) An impressive collection of historical records from the ancient world. 2) The account of how our family began.
A reasonable person can’t doubt that it happened. What we believe, by the grace of God, is that when it happened, it happened to us.