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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Don Stewart :: What Is the Indirect Evidence That Jesus Came Back from the Dead?

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What Is the Indirect Evidence That Jesus Came Back from the Dead?

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ – Question 8

There is eyewitness, or firsthand, testimony to the appearance of Jesus Christ after His death. The New Testament writers are unanimous in their proclamation that Jesus came back from the dead.

However, eyewitnesses can be honestly mistaken, have a hazy memory, and even lie. This is why the indirect, or circumstantial, evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is also important.

Fortunately, there is an abundance of circumstantial, or indirect, testimony that Jesus Christ has indeed risen from the dead. This includes the following lines of evidence.

1. The Changed Lives of the Disciples

The changed lives of the disciples give indirect testimony to Christ’s resurrection. Something changed these disciples of Jesus Christ from cowards to martyrs, from frightened individuals to bold proclaimers of the resurrection. It had to be something more powerful than a delusion or a lie. They said their lives were changed because they had seen the risen Christ. The evidence is as follows.

A. The Order of the Resurrection Events

We find the New Testament chronicling the events that led to the changed lives of Jesus’ disciples. When Jesus was betrayed, the Bible says His disciples scattered:

But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled. Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. (Matthew 26:56 NRSV)

Jesus was left alone. Only His enemies were with Him.

To make matters worse, Simon Peter, who had promised to die for Jesus, denied that he ever knew Him. Matthew records what occurred:

Meanwhile, as Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard, a servant girl came over and said to him, “You were one of those with Jesus the Galilean.” But Peter denied it in front of everyone. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said. Later, out by the gate, another servant girl noticed him and said to those standing around, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again Peter denied it, this time with an oath. “I don’t even know the man,” he said. A little later some other bystanders came over to him and said, “You must be one of them; we can tell by your Galilean accent.” Peter said, “I swear by God, I don’t know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. (Matthew 26:69-74 NLT)

Peter did not want to acknowledge that he even knew Jesus. The next day, at Jesus’ crucifixion, His disciples were nowhere to be found.

The picture we get of the disciples at the time of Jesus’ trial and death is that of a frightened band of individuals who denied their Lord and went into hiding.

B. Their Changed Lives on the Day of Pentecost

Some fifty days later, however, we find these same disciples standing up and bravely proclaiming, in the city of Jerusalem, that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. On that day Peter said the following to the large crowd that had gathered:

Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. (Acts 2:22-24 NIV)

Something changed these cowards into bold preachers of Christ’s resurrection.

C. The Disciples Were Arrested for Preaching Jesus

Soon thereafter the boldness of the disciples caused the religious leaders to arrest them. We read the following in the Book of Acts:

Now as they were speaking to the people, the priests, the commander of the temple guard, and the Sadducees confronted them, because they were provoked that they were teaching the people and proclaiming in the person of Jesus the resurrection from the dead. So they seized them and put them in custody until the next day, since it was already evening. (Acts 4:1-3 HCSB)

The preaching of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was something these religious leaders could not tolerate.

The religious leaders then resorted to threats. They said to one another:

But so this does not spread any further among the people, let’s threaten them against speaking to anyone in this name again. So they called for them and ordered them not to preach or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God [for us] to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” After threatening them further, they released them. They found no way to punish them, because the people were all giving glory to God over what had been done. (Acts 4:17-21 HCSB)

Jesus’ disciples, these former cowards, were now fearlessly proclaiming the resurrection of Christ. Obviously, something happened to change the lives of these men. It is clear that they believed Jesus had risen from the dead. The disciples attributed their bravery to having seen Christ alive after His death. If Christ had not risen, then some other explanation for their changed lives must be in order. Yet, no other explanation even begins to explain all the facts.

2. The Conversion of Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul

A second line of indirect evidence that can be offered for the resurrection of Christ is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul. Saul of Tarsus, the greatest antagonist of the Christian faith, was converted and became the Apostle Paul—the greatest proclaimer of the faith.

A. Saul Persecuted Believers

According to his own testimony, Saul persecuted the believers in Jesus Christ. We read of this in the Book of Acts. He said the following:

I used to believe that I ought to do everything I could to oppose the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Authorized by the leading priests, I caused many of the believers in Jerusalem to be sent to prison. And I cast my vote against them when they were condemned to death. Many times I had them whipped in the synagogues to try to get them to curse Christ. I was so violently opposed to them that I even hounded them in distant cities of foreign lands. (Acts 26:9-11 NLT)

Saul had believers jailed and consented to their death sentence. In doing all this, he believed he was serving God. However, something happened to Saul to change his way of thinking. The Book of Acts gives Paul’s own explanation:

King Agrippa, one day I was on my way to Damascus with the authority and permission of the chief priests. About noon I saw a light brighter than the sun. It flashed from heaven on me and on everyone traveling with me. We all fell to the ground. Then I heard a voice say to me in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why are you so cruel to me? It’s foolish to fight against me!” “Who are you?” I asked. Then the Lord answered, “I am Jesus! I am the one you are so cruel to. Now stand up. I have appeared to you, because I have chosen you to be my servant. You are to tell others what you have learned about me and what I will show you later.” (Acts 26:12-16 CEV)

Saul obeyed the heavenly vision and became the Apostle Pau, the mighty defender of the faith. He wrote thirteen of the books that make up the New Testament. The greatest antagonist to the faith became its greatest champion. Something changed this man. What was it that changed his life? He said it was meeting the risen Christ.

B. Saul Went from Unbeliever to Believer

Here we have an example of a man who was not a believer during Jesus’ earthly life, who became a believer after Christ had risen. This is in contrast to Jesus’ disciples—who believed in Him during His earthly ministry. Saul’s testimony is another in the line of circumstantial evidence that Christ rose from the dead.

Eighteenth century author George Lyttleton wrote the following concerning the conversion of Saul of Tarsus:

I thought the conversion and the Apostleship of St. Paul alone, duly considered, was of itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity as a Divine Revelation (George Lord Lyttleton, Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul in a letter to Gilbert West, London, 1814).

Saul’s conversion provides sufficient evidence to believe in Jesus.

3. The Conversion of James, Jesus’ Brother

Another important indirect testimony to the resurrection of Jesus is the conversion of Jesus’ brother James. We are told that His brothers did not believe in Him during His earthly ministry. John the Apostle wrote:

Even Jesus’ own brothers had not yet become his followers. (John 7:5 CEV)

They did not accept His claim to be the Messiah.

However, we find James, along with at least one other brother of Jesus, with the disciples after Jesus’ death and resurrection. We read of this in the Book of Acts:

All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (Acts 1:14 RSV)

Something changed James, as well as the other brothers of Jesus, to go from unbelievers to believers. What was it? We are told that Jesus appeared to James:

Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:7 RSV)

The conversion of James can best be understood by the fact that he saw the risen Christ.

4. The Rise of the Christian Church

The New Testament church came into existence as a result of the resurrection faith of the believers. In every sermon, the substance of the preaching of the apostles was that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. Multitudes soon believed their message. The Book of Acts says,

So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about 3,000 people were added to them. (Acts 2:41 HCSB)

On this first sermon of the church some three thousand people believed.

Later, in the Book of Acts, we read the following:

Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7 NKJV)

It is a historical fact that Christianity spread faster than any other religion or philosophy in the ancient world. By the early part of the fourth century, the Roman Empire became “Christianized.” Something had to account for this unprecedented growth—something at least as compelling as a resurrected Christ. It certainly wasn’t the moral code that Jesus preached that caused this new faith to grow so rapidly. Indeed, the same basic teachings about God can be found in the Old Testament. It must have been something else which caused this new religion, this new faith, to grow so rapidly.

Consequently, the fact of Christianity’s rapid expansion gives a further witness to the truth of its resurrection message. People embraced Christianity because they were convinced that Jesus Christ has conquered death and could offer them eternal life.

5. The Change in the Day of Worship for the Jews

A further line of circumstantial evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ concerns the changing of the day of worship. The Jewish worship was on the Sabbath (from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown). However the early Christians observed the first day of the week, or Sunday, as their day of worship to commemorate Jesus’ resurrection. This was no small thing to the first believers who were Jews. The day of worship, the Sabbath, was something that no Jew would dare break or change. Yet Jesus’ disciples preferred to worship on the first day of the week—the day in which He came back from the dead.

We read about this in the Book of Acts. It says,

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and he prolonged his speech until midnight. (Acts 20:7 RSV)

This testifies that the early believers met on Sunday.

In another illustration of this, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians and commanded them to present their offering on the first day of each week, Sunday:

When you collect money for God’s people, I want you to do exactly what I told the churches in Galatia to do. That is, each Sunday each of you must put aside part of what you have earned. If you do this, you won’t have to take up a collection when I come. (1 Corinthians 16:1, 2 CEV)

Something monumental had to have happened to make the believers change the day of worship—something like a resurrection. The Letter of Barnabas, an early Christian document, stated.

Therefore we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day on which Jesus rose from the dead.

This is another circumstantial indication that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week.

6. The Observance Of The Old Testament Law Was Not Longer Necessary

There is also the fact that the early Christians, who were Jews, did not feel obligated to observe the Law of Moses. They saw Jesus as the One who fulfilled the law. This too is monumental. The Law of Moses was more than mere regulations they were to observe. Indeed, it was how their entire life was to be lived. To stop observing the Law in favor of Jesus would have taken an extraordinary thing to have occurred. Again, it would have to have been something like a resurrection.

7. There Was No More Need for Animal Sacrifices

After the first human beings, Adam and Eve, sinned against the Lord, the concept of animal sacrifice was introduced. Through the entire Old Testament period, the nation of Israel was required to offer animal sacrifices for their sins.

The fact that the early Christians, who were Jews, abandoned animal sacrifices is another strong circumstantial reason to their belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The God-given command of animal sacrifice was no longer observed. Jesus Christ Himself was the Lamb of God in which the Old Testament sacrifices pointed. Again, the observance of the sacrificial system is not something that a Jew would give up lightly.

8. The Worship of Jesus as God by the Jews

Another factor that gives indirect testimony to Jesus’ resurrection is the doctrine of the Trinity. From all the earliest sources we have, we find that Jesus was worshipped as God by His followers. The Jews, who strictly believed in one God, were now worshipping Jesus as God. Again, it would have taken something incredible for them to place Jesus on the same level as the God of the Old Testament. The Jewish believers would be jeopardizing their future if they were wrong about Jesus’ identity. The fact that they worshipped Him shows the depth of their belief that He truly had risen from the dead.

9. The Proclamation of These Jewish Christians of a Dying and Rising Messiah

The Old Testament looked forward to the coming of a Person known as the Messiah, or Christ. Yet, at the time of Jesus’ coming to the earth, there was nothing taught about the Messiahs’ dying and then rising from the dead. In fact, they believed the Messiah would live forever. We find this recorded for us in John’s gospel:

He [Jesus] said this to indicate how he was going to die. “Die?” asked the crowd. “We understood from Scripture that the Messiah would live forever. Why are you saying the Son of Man will die? Who is this Son of Man you are talking about?” (John 12:33-34 NLT)

Jesus’ death was totally unexpected to those who had come to believe in Him as the Messiah.

10. The Practice of Baptism and Communion by the First Christians

At an early date, the Christians practiced the sacraments of baptism and communion, or the Lord’s Supper. These two sacraments testified to their belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Baptism signified both the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul wrote to the Romans about the significance of baptism:

Or have you forgotten that when we became Christians and were baptized to become one with Christ Jesus, we died with him? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised as he was. (Romans 6:3-5 NLT)

The Lord’s Supper also remembered the fact that He died for our sins, rose from the dead, as well as the truth that the risen Christ will come again.

Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 RSV)

The fact that Jesus’ death was actually celebrated must be accounted for. Why does one celebrate the death of their leader? These early institutions give further circumstantial evidence that the first Christians believed Jesus died and rose again.

11. Women Testifying First Shows the Credibility of the Account

According to the New Testament, the first person that saw the resurrected Christ was Mary Magdalene. She thought Jesus was the gardener. Jesus then appeared to another group of women.

If one were to make up the story of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, they certainly would not have Him first appearing to women. In that culture, at the time of Christ, the witness of a woman was not as readily accepted as a man’s. Their testimony would not have been admissible as legal proof except in a few specific situations.

Thus, if the story had been made up, then Jesus would have first appeared to a man—either one of His disciples or perhaps one of His enemies such as Herod, Pilate, or Caiaphas the High Priest. Yet the New Testament says that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene and then to other women. This is not what one would expect in a made up story. The special privilege of seeing the risen Christ would not have been given to women. Again, this is another indication the story is reliable. There are no signs of legend here.

12. The Christians Buried Their Dead

Another indirect line of evidence concerns Christians burying their dead. Unbelievers cremated their dead. However, from the very beginning, the Christians buried theirs in underground cemeteries and catacombs. Indeed, some six hundred miles of catacombs stretch around the city of Rome. In these catacombs about four million Christians from the first three centuries are buried. Each one of these buried believers testifies to their faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and faith in their own ultimate resurrection.

13. The Events on the Day of Pentecost

On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit supernaturally fell upon the disciples of Jesus. They were able to speak in languages they had not previously learned. This caused amazement to those who heard it. We read about this in the Book of Acts. It says,

Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (Acts 2:7, 8 NRSV)

What caused the supernatural ability of Jesus’ disciples to speak in languages they had not previously learned? Peter stood up and told them the reason for this miracle; it was the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Three thousand people converted to Christ on that day. The reason for their conversion, according to the Scripture, was the truth of the resurrection.

14. The Miracles in the Book of Acts

The miracles in the Book of Acts gives further circumstantial testimony to Jesus’ resurrection. The fact that the disciples of Jesus were able to perform similar miracles as He performed demonstrated that Jesus’ power was still working after His death, resurrection and ascension.

Acts 3: The Healing of a Lame Man

We are told that Peter and John performed a miracle; healing a lame man at the entrance to the temple. They testified that the ability to perform this miracle was granted to them by the risen Christ. They emphasized again that they were eyewitnesses of His resurrection. Peter said,

But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses. (Acts 3:14, 15 NKJV)

Their miraculous healing ability is a further demonstration that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead.

Acts 4: The Testified before the Council

When Peter spoke before the council he testified that it was the power of the risen Christ that healed this sick man:

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Leaders and elders of our nation, are we being questioned because we’ve done a good deed for a crippled man? Do you want to know how he was healed? Let me clearly state to you and to all the people of Israel that he was healed in the name and power of Jesus Christ from Nazareth, the man you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:8-10 NLT)

The enemies could not deny this healing. They had to admit something special had occurred. The Book of Acts gives the following testimony:

They said, “What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it.” (Acts 4:16 NRSV)

The miracles of the apostles, as recorded in the Book of Acts, were all based on the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The message of the early church was that Christ had risen from the dead and His disciples were witnesses to that event. This testimony was evidenced by these extraordinary miracles.

15. The Grave Clothes Were Undisturbed

Another bit of circumstantial evidence is the undisturbed and folded grave clothes. If the body of Jesus had been taken from the tomb by Jesus’ disciples, they would not have taken the time to remove and unwind the grave clothes and then fold them again. We read of this occurring in the gospel of John. It reads as follows:

When Simon Peter got there, he went into the tomb and saw the strips of cloth. He also saw the piece of cloth that had been used to cover Jesus’ face. It was rolled up and in a place by itself. (John 20:6, 7 CEV)

Thus, the position of the grave clothes at Jesus’ tomb is another circumstantial indication of His resurrection from the dead.

16. The Nazareth Decree

In 1930, a Frenchman named Franz Cumont published an inscription of a text from the city of Nazareth. Though the inscription is in Greek, it is probably a translation of a Latin original. The inscription records the decree of the Emperor Claudius, who ruled from A.D. 41 to 54. This decree ordered the death penalty for anyone disturbing tombs. The inscription reads as follows:

It is my pleasure that sepulchers and tombs, which have been erected as solemn memorial of ancestors or children or relatives, shall remain undisturbed in perpetuity. If it be shown that anyone has either destroyed them or otherwise thrown out bodies which have been buried there or removed them with malicious intent to another place, thus committing a crime against those buried there, or removed the headstones or other stones, I command that against such person the same sentence be passed in respect to solemn memorials of men as is laid down in respect of the gods. Much rather one must pay respect to those who are buried. Let no one disturb them on any account. Otherwise it is my will that capital sentence be passed upon such person for the crime of tomb-spoilation.

Obviously something led to this decree. Why would the Roman Emperor give his attention to body snatching in this remote part of the Roman Empire? Why did Claudius institute the death penalty for robbing tombs only in this one particular geographic area—the area where Jesus came from? The decree of Claudius seems to support the early Jewish contention that the body of Jesus was stolen—which is an admission that the tomb was empty.

17. There Is No Credible Alternative to the Resurrection Accounts

There is another factor that needs to be considered as part of the indirect evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, the lack of a credible alternative. If Jesus Christ had not actually risen from the dead, then, at least, some credible theory should be offered to explain what happened because something indeed did happen. The lack of any such credible theory speaks volumes. Why is it that every theory that attempts to explain away the resurrection of Christ takes more faith to believe than the New Testament version of what happened? A plausible alternative is necessary but a plausible alternative does not exist.

18. Jesus Christ Can Still Change Lives

The final testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that He is still in the business of changing lives. We have much more that the record of the New Testament that Jesus changes lives. Millions of people throughout history, as well as millions today, personally testify to a changed life through belief in Jesus Christ. People from all walks of life, from every country, from every educational background, testify to a changed life through belief in Jesus Christ. Something occurs that changes the lives of these people. What is it? Believers claim it is the risen Christ. It is He, and He alone, that transforms people from hopeless to hopeful, from lost to found.

In sum, there are many indirect reasons as to why someone should believe the New Testament account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Summary – Question 8
What Is the Indirect Evidence That Jesus Came Back from the Dead?

Apart from the direct testimony of the eyewitnesses to Jesus Christ’s resurrection, we also have much circumstantial evidence that it actually occurred. We have noted eighteen different lines of circumstantial evidence. They are as follows.

First, the risen Christ can only explain the changed lives of the disciples. Nothing else could have changed them from cowards to martyrs. The conversion of Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul makes no sense without the resurrection of Christ. Neither does the conversion of James, the Lord’s brother, who did not believe in Him during His earthly ministry.

Some power had to have given rise to the Christian church. What made it grow faster than any other religion or philosophy in the ancient world?

There is also the fact that a number of Jewish institutions, which were divinely given by the Lord, were now changed. For example, the change of the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday had to have been occasioned by some great event. The Old Testament law was no longer binding on the Christians. Animal sacrifices, which the Lord had instituted, were no longer necessary.

The fact that the first Christians, who were Jews, no longer felt bound to observe these things the Lord instituted, shows that something monumental had to have happened to institute this change.

Also, the fact that these Jews worshipped Jesus as God is evidence that they believed something truly amazing happened to Him. Indeed, there would be no reason whatsoever for a Jew to worship their dead leader as God.

The Christians buried their dead instead of cremating them as the pagans did. The believers in Jesus did so because they expecting these dead bodies to eventually rise.

The miraculous events on the Day of Pentecost have to have some explanation. The disciples testified it was the risen Christ who was the cause of these miracles


The miracles in the Book of Acts further testify to the resurrection power of Jesus. Something gave His disciples the power to work these mighty deeds after Jesus had died, risen, and ascended into heaven.

The grave clothes were undisturbed in Jesus’ tomb. We would not expect this to happen if someone stole the body. It is though the body of Christ disappeared through these clothes.

The Nazareth Decree testifies that the first century Jews were concerned about empty tombs. Why should the Roman Emperor be concerned about grave-robbing in that remote part of the Roman Empire? It seems to give further indication of the story the Jewish leaders were spreading; that His disciples stole His body and then proclaimed a resurrection.

Add to this the fact that there never has been a credible alternative theory which explains away the resurrection. Indeed, something obviously happened!

Last, but certainly not least, Jesus Christ changed lives in the first century and can still change lives today. Indeed, there are untold millions of us who can testify to this.

Thus, the evidence, both direct and circumstantial testifies to the fact that Jesus had risen from the dead three days after He was crucified on Calvary’s cross.

What Do We Know about the Character of the Witnesses Who Testified of the Risen Christ? ← Prior Section
Who Brought Jesus Back from the Dead? Next Section →
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