Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? That Jesus did so is probably the most extraordinary claim of Christianity, and not surprisingly, it is the claim that has elicited the most skepticism on the part of unbelievers.
But how do we know that the resurrection actually took place? Perhaps the most detailed account that we have of it is contained in The Gospel According to John. John describes the death of Jesus on the cross, noting in particular that one of the Roman soldiers pierced the dead body of Jesus with a spear (John 19:34). John then tells of how the body was wrapped in strips of linen and placed in a nearby tomb.
John then goes on to tell how he discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead. He and Peter were informed by Mary Magdalene that the tomb was empty. Both men ran to the site and saw the empty tomb for themselves. John even describes the position of the linen wrappings that were still lying in the tomb. After Peter and John returned to their homes Jesus Himself appeared to Mary and addressed her by name. Thus Mary Magdalene became the first person to see Jesus alive after the crucifixion.
John goes on then to record three separate instances in which Jesus appeared to the disciples as a group. The first of these took place in the evening of that first Sunday. The disciples were meeting behind locked doors when Jesus suddenly appeared in the room. He spoke with them and showed them the obvious identifying marks, the wounds on His hands and side.
John then tells us the famous story about "doubting Thomas." Thomas was not present at the first appearance and found it hard to believe that any such thing as a physical resurrection could actually take place. Whatever the other disciples had seen, they did not see Jesus. "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe" (20:25; NKJV). In other words, he said exactly the same thing that modern skeptics, versed in naturalistic science, would have said.
Jesus provided exactly the kind of proof that Thomas demanded. A week later He appeared again in the same room, and this time Thomas was there. Jesus challenged him to touch the wounds. We do not know that a modern atheist such as David Hume or Bertrand Russell would have been convinced, but Thomas certainly was. His response was, "My Lord and my God!" (v. 28).
John then goes on to describe another incident that apparently happened sometime afterward. Several of the disciples were fishing in the Sea of Tiberias in northern Palestine when Jesus appeared on the shore preparing breakfast for them. He invited them to join Him. They all ate and engaged in conversation.
How do we know that John is telling us the truth? There is corroborating evidence. All four gospels contain accounts of the resurrection. The apostles all claimed to have been eyewitnesses, and they made the resurrection a key point of their preaching. And the apostle Paul, writing in about A.D 55 to the church in Corinth in Greece made this interesting comment: Christ "rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and . . . was seen by Cephas [i.e., Peter], then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also . . ." (I Cor. 15:4-8).
The gist of the matter is this: Jesus appeared on several different occasions; He appeared to several different people at the same time; He interacted with them; they could physically touch them; and on one occasion He ate the same food that they were eating. What all of this does is eliminate the possibilities of optical illusion, hallucination, temporary insanity, or conspiracy and fraud. A large number of people saw something, and it was enough to convince them that Jesus, Whom they had seen hanging lifeless on the cross, had actually risen from the dead. That was the unanimous testimony of the First Century church. The resurrection is one of the best documented events in ancient history.
C.S. Lewis described his shock at hearing a friend of his, "the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew," say that say that the evidence for the historicity of the gospels was surprisingly good. "'Rum thing' he went on. 'All that stuff of Frazer's about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as it if had really happened once.'" (Surprised by Joy; Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955, pp. 223-224). The comment shook Lewis' own faith in Atheism, and led to his eventually becoming a Christian. It is a comment well worth pondering.