To answer our question from a historical standpoint, we must first determine what facts concerning the fate of Jesus of Nazareth can be credibly established on the basis of the evidence and second consider what the best explanation of those facts is. At least four facts about the fate of the historical Jesus are widely accepted by NT historians today.
Fact 1: After His crucifixion, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
This fact is highly significant because it means that the location of Jesus' tomb was known in Jerusalem to Jews and Christians alike. New Testament scholars have established the fact of Jesus' entombment on the basis of evidence such as the following:
1. Jesus' burial is attested in the information (from before A.D. 36) that was handed on by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5.
2. The burial story is independently attested in the source material that was used by Mark in writing his Gospel.
3. Given the understandable hostility in the early Christian movement toward the Jewish national leaders, Joseph of Arimathea, as a member of the Jewish high court that condemned Jesus, is unlikely to have been a Christian invention.
4. The burial story is simple and lacks any signs of being developed into a legend.
5. No other competing burial story exists.
For these and other reasons, the majority of NT critics concur that Jesus was in fact buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
Fact 2: On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus' tomb was found empty by a group of His women followers. Among the reasons that have led most scholars to this conclusion are the following:
1. In stating that Jesus "was buried, that He was raised on the third day," the old information transmitted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 implies the empty tomb.
2. The empty tomb story also has multiple and independent attestation in Mark, Matthew, and John's source material, some of which is very early.
3. The empty tomb story as related in Mark, our earliest account, is simple and lacks signs of having been embellished as a legend.
4. Given that in Jewish patriarchal culture the testimony of women was regarded as unreliable, the fact that women, rather than men, were the chief witnesses to the empty tomb is best explained by the narrative's being true.
5. The earliest known Jewish response to the proclamation of Jesus' resurrection, namely, the "disciples came during the night and stole Him while we were sleeping" (Mt 28:12-15), was itself an attempt to explain why the body was missing and thus presupposes the empty tomb.
For these and other reasons, a majority of scholars hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical testimony to Jesus' empty tomb.
Fact 3: On multiple occasions, and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups saw Jesus alive after His death. This fact is almost universally acknowledged among NT scholars for the following reasons:
1. Given its early date as well as Paul's personal acquaintance with the people involved, the list of eyewitnesses to Jesus' resurrection appearances that is quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 guarantees that such appearances occurred.
2. The appearance narratives in the Gospels provide multiple, independent attestations of the appearances.
Even the most skeptical critics acknowledge that the disciples had seen Jesus alive after His death.
Finally, fact 4: The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe Jesus was risen from the dead, despite having every predisposition to the contrary.
Consider the situation the disciples faced following Jesus' crucifixion:
1. Their leader was dead and Jewish messianic expectations did not expect a Messiah who, instead of triumphing over Israel's enemies, would be shamefully executed by them as a criminal.
2. According to OT law, Jesus' execution exposed Him as a heretic, a man accursed by God.
3. Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded anyone's rising from the dead to glory and immortality before the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the world.
Nevertheless, the original disciples suddenly came to believe so strongly that God had raised Jesus from the dead that they were willing to die for that belief.
We come now to our second concern: What is the best explanation of these four facts?
In his book Justifying Historical Descriptions, historian C. B. McCullagh lists six tests historians use to determine the best explanation for a given body of historical facts. The hypothesis given by the eyewitnesses-"God raised Jesus from the dead"-passes all these tests:
1. It has great explanatory scope. It explains why the tomb was found empty, why the disciples saw postmortem appearances of Jesus, and why the Christian faith came into being.
2. It has great explanatory power. It explains why the body of Jesus was gone, why people repeatedly saw Jesus alive despite His earlier public execution, and so forth.
3. It is plausible. Given the historical context of Jesus' unparalleled life and claims, the resurrection makes sense as the divine confirmation of those radical claims.
4. It is not ad hoc or contrived. It requires only one additional hypothesis: that God exists.
5. It is in accord with accepted beliefs. The hypothesis "God raised Jesus from the dead" does not in any way conflict with the accepted belief that people do not rise naturally from the dead. The Christian accepts that belief as wholeheartedly as he accepts the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead.
6. It far outstrips any of its rival theories in meeting conditions 1 through 5. Down through history, various alternative explanations of the facts have been offered-the conspiracy theory, the apparent death theory, the hallucination theory, and so forth. Such hypotheses have been almost universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. No naturalistic hypothesis has, in fact, attracted a great number of scholars.
Therefore, the best explanation of the established facts seems to be that God raised Jesus from the dead.
We have firm historical grounds for answering our question in the affirmative. The historical route is not, however, the only avenue to a knowledge of Jesus' resurrection. The majority of Christians, who have had neither the resources, training, nor leisure to conduct a historical inquiry into this event, have come to a knowledge of Jesus' resurrection through a personal encounter with the living Lord (Rm 8:9-17).
Extracted from the Apologetics Study Bible.