The basic tenets of the Christian faith have been skeptically criticized by unbelievers for centuries. The belief that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead by the power of God three days after being executed via crucifixion by the Roman government is no exception.
It is undeniable that for two thousand years a sizable portion of the human populace has believed that the carpenter from Nazareth came back to life. This belief is how the Christian religion started. According to the New Testament record (as well as the Roman historian Tacitus, who described Christianity as “a most mischievous superstition” which was “thus checked for the moment” by the execution of Christ but “again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome…” [Annals 44.3]), Christ was first proclaimed by his apostles as risen from the dead on the Jewish holy day of Pentecost not only after his execution, resulting in several thousand believing the claims of the apostles with that number continually rising, in spite of persecution, in the years to come.
Did the resurrection of Christ actually happen? It’s clear the apostles believed it did. But are there better explanations for what they believed to have happened?
For example, is the resurrection of Jesus actually a case of mistaken identity or the result of being deceived by an impersonator? Did those who claim they saw him alive after his death actually see someone else, either someone who looked a lot like him whom they mistook for him or someone actually impersonating him?
No, for several reasons.
Paul wrote that Jesus had appeared to his brother, James (1 Cor. 15:7). According to the gospel accounts, James and the other brothers had not believed him to be the Messiah and had actually thought him to be mentally deranged (John 7:3-5; Mk. 3:21). However, after the resurrection Luke lists James and the rest of his brothers as part of Jesus’ disciples (Acts 1:14), and later cites James as a leader in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:13ff). James is thought by most to be the author of the New Testament book which bears his name. Would Jesus’ own brother not be able to recognize the difference between an impersonator or someone who closely resembled Jesus and Jesus himself?
Paul himself, while being an acknowledged enemy of the Christian religion and recognized by the disciples as such, claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor. 15:8). This encounter is the cited reason for his change from zealous adversary to zealous champion of the Christian faith, including the belief that the carpenter from Nazareth was resurrected from the dead. Assuming that Paul, as a Pharisee, had either previously met or had observed Jesus in the flesh before his death on the cross, could an imposter have produced such a ideological change in this man? Could a case of mistaken identity produce the supernatural occurrences surrounding his encounter with the risen Jesus, such as the bright light, the voice from heaven, and the subsequent blindness which then miraculously ceased on the word of one of the Nazarene’s disciples? Such conclusions are without merit.
The apostles themselves had spent over three years with Jesus of Nazareth, day and night. They would have been able to tell the difference between an imposter or someone who resembled their friend and the real Jesus. Indeed, Thomas would not believe that Jesus was resurrected without being shown the empirical evidence of the nail wounds in his hands and the spear wound in his side. Would an impersonator have been willing to give himself such serious wounds for the sake of the con he was trying to pull? Did the man they mistook for Jesus happen to have the same wounds? They claimed that Jesus appeared suddenly in a locked room in Jerusalem and had miraculously helped them catch fish in Galilee. Would an impersonator or someone accidentally mistaken for Jesus have been able to do the same? Clearly not.
Thus, one cannot disprove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth by dismissing the eyewitness testimony of the risen Christ as cases of impersonation or mistaken identity.