Q: What evidence exists for the resurrection of Jesus?
A: The main evidence we have for the resurrection of Jesus is seen through the New Testament documents which are themselves direct evidence of a mid-first-century, Mediterranean-wide social movement comprised of thousands of contemporaries of Jesus who believed he had been raised from the dead according to the Jewish Scriptures. This movement was led by Jews, many of whom either knew Jesus personally, or knew people who knew him personally, during the time before he was tried, convicted, and crucified. Some of them, over 500 by one count, actually claimed to have seen Jesus after his resurrection. His appearances were many, varied, and occurred over a period of forty days.
While Jews at this time had a significant presence in the Roman province of Judea, their ancestral homeland, they also were a highly-dispersed ethnic group with synagogues, large and small, throughout the Roman Empire. These gatherings were the usual launching point for spreading the word about Jesus in a new locale. The message about Jesus’ resurrection was polarizing to the Jews, resulting in either conversion of the synagogue or expulsion of converts from the synagogue. Gentiles began accepting the message, but they, too, were polarized. The leadership of the movement remained Jewish throughout the time that the New Testament documents were being written.
It is very important to note that the claim was not just that Jesus was raised from the dead, but that this event, as well as key aspects and turning points of his life before and after resurrection, had been prophesied in the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament) by Israel’s prophets hundreds of years in advance of the first-century events. These prophecies were promises about what God would one day do through a descendant of King David – Israel’s most prominent and admired king. Yet many of these prophecies had been written as a riddle (the biblical term for this was “mystery”), such that no one knew that the promised messiah would be crucified and resurrected. Otherwise, the antagonistic Jewish authorities would never have handed Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified. Rather, they would have jailed him or poisoned him or in some other way disposed of him so that no Jew would have reason to believe he was the messiah of Israel. Like a riddle, the prophecies seemed contradictory, predicting glory for the messiah but also suffering, and only made sense once the answer was revealed in the resurrection event. Thus, no one heard the report of Jesus’ resurrection and simply believed it as an isolated, uncontextualized phenomenon. Rather, they heard the report of his resurrection in the context of what Israel’s prophets had been prophesying for centuries about a coming messiah, whose arrival first-century Jews deemed to be imminent, albeit with the uncertainty about specifics to be expected from riddle-like prophecies. This is why witnesses to his resurrection needed to be believers. A CNN reporter would not have been able to give the significant scriptural evidence required to get a pious Jew to take the claim seriously (see, for example, Acts 17:1-13; 18:27-28).
As stated above, not everyone believed. Skepticism was as prominent in that age as it is in ours, though it took different forms. The primary consequence of this skepticism was indifference to the movement until it involved enough people in politically significant cities to elicit notice from political authorities. For this reason, secular references to the movement are limited in the first century, yet we do find some.
If you’re going to believe that Jesus was not raised from the dead, you have to find a plausible alternate explanation for why all these people believed he had been. Bear in mind that there were no earthly rewards for the leaders of this movement. On the contrary, they encountered trouble on all fronts for their efforts. There were no pope-mobiles, shiny garments, or plump pensions for them. In fact, by most accounts, practically all of them were martyred, and some in the most excruciatingly painful ways. In reading the New Testament documents you do not get the idea that these folks were weird or out of touch with reality. On the contrary, they seemed like regular people – except for the extraordinary goodness that seemed to propel them to face the intense and violent persecution that the resurrection message elicited. These Jews, and the Gentiles who began to be drawn to their cause, obviously had their eye on some heavenly reward for their efforts. The question you have to ask is what would motivate that sort of proclamation of that sort of message…unless it were true. I’ve never heard any other plausible explanation.
Within the New Testament there are specific claims of eyewitness testimony (e.g. 1 Cor 15:1-8; Luke 1:1-4; John 20:30-31; 21:24-25; 2 Pet 1:16-19; 1 John 1:1-2), but these are merely the tip of the spear that is the broad first-century Jewish/Gentile social movement surrounding the resurrection of Christ. The New Testament is the collection of what remains of that movement’s internal written communications. None of the writings were addressed to skeptics; therefore, these documents do not directly deal with skeptics’ concerns. And they certainly are not written to satisfy the demands of a 21st-century media consumer. However, these documents actually provide something better. That is, they provide thoughts exchanged between God-fearing first-century Jews who would rather be caught dead than to bear false witness against their God. Their unshakable conviction was that the Creator of heaven and earth had raised Jesus from Nazareth from the dead according to their Scriptures. This is the evidence. In order to be reasonable people we should either accept that evidence, or find evidence for an alternative explanation for their experience that is more persuasive.
I first gave this answer in response to this question on Quora.