Truth That Matters

"What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" - Jesus Christ

Resurrection: Did Jesus really rise again from the dead?

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a central element in The Main Message of the Bible. We first consider the Biblical record, followed by various alternate scenarios suggested by skeptics to refute the resurrection. Then we look at positive evidence for it.

The Biblical record

At the outset, we must be clear that the Bible insists that Jesus died and rose again from the dead:-

  • "Come see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead...and as they went, Jesus met them" – Matthew 28:5-6, 9
  • "He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had been raised." – Mark 16:14. If no miracle had taken place, what is there to believe and be rebuked for not believing?
  • "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here but risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. And they remembered His words." – Luke 24:5-8
  • Jesus himself claimed that he would die and rise from the dead (Mark 9:31), and said so after it happened (Luke 23:46). He repeats his claim in Revelation 1:18.
  • John tells us that the Old Testament predicts that Jesus would rise again from the dead (John 20:9). He then reports that Jesus was alive (John 20:21) after earlier reporting that Jesus had died (John 19:33).
  • Paul affirms the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:3), with approval from Peter who was present at the scene of Jesus' death and resurrection (2 Peter 3:15).

The following are some post-resurrection appearances of Jesus:

  • To Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18, Mark 16:9)
  • To the other women (Matthew 28:8-10)
  • To Peter (Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:5)
  • To the two on Emmaus road (Luke 24:13-35, Mark 16:12)
  • To ten of the disciples (Luke 24:36-43, John 20:24-29)
  • To the eleven disciples eight days later (John 20:24-29)
  • To seven disciples by the Sea of Tiberias (John 21:1-23)
  • To five hundred followers (1 Corinthians 15:6)
  • To James (1 Corinthians 15:7)
  • To the eleven when he ascended (Acts 1:3-12)

The "grand hoax" theory:

It states that Jesus was just an ordinary teacher or leader; there were no dramatic events surrounding his death at all. The resurrection is a legend that developed over the centuries. This theory is refuted by the following observations:-

  • Within 70 years, Jesus had four biographies giving harmonious accounts of his death and resurrection that received wide acceptance. Legends do not develop and crystallize in such a short time, when eye witnesses are still alive.
  • Not only did Jesus' disciples actively preach his resurrection, they gained such a following that they incurred the ire of the Roman Empire before the close of the first century (when contemporaries of Jesus were still alive). This would not happen if the resurrection was a slowly-developing myth.
  • The rapid spread of Christianity involved many Jewish Christians changing their day of worship from Saturday to Sunday and willingness to participate in rituals like baptism and the Lord's Supper that symbolize and allude to the resurrection.
  • Various evidences for the general authenticity of the Bible show that it cannot be wrong to the extent demanded by the grand hoax theory
  • Secular historians attest to the fact that there was a prominent figure called Jesus who was executed, and that belief in his resurrection was widespread.
  • For ancient secular references to the empty tomb, see E M Blaiklock, Out of the Earth, p42-49

Conclusion: Even those who doubt the resurrection have to admit that some dramatic event concerning Jesus of Nazareth took place about the time of his death (32 AD).

The "stolen body" theory

It states that Jesus died, but someone stole his body from the tomb, giving Jesus' disciples an excuse to claim that he was risen. However:-

  • The Romans had no motivation to steal Jesus' body. He was just another of the (hundreds of) crucifixion victims that year to them. Nor would Joseph of Arimathea steal the body.
  • The Jewish leaders were unsympathetic to Jesus and so would never steal his body. They were the ones who insisted on a Roman guard to prevent his body from being stolen (Matthew 27:62-66). A Roman guard consists of 4 to 16 fully armed soldiers who were on duty on pain of death.
  • According to the Bible, the disciples of Jesus ran away in fear when Jesus was arrested. Peter was so terrified that he denied the Lord Jesus thrice. Why should the disciples then steal Jesus' body? If you dispute the Biblical account of the disciples fleeing in fear, it means that you claim that the disciples were bold and crafty enough to invent a false religion and preach it amidst opposition. Why then did they tolerate the gospel accounts that portray them in such a poor light?
  • If the disciples of Christ stole Jesus' body, it implies that they had vested interests in preaching the resurrection of Christ. Why then would they write a New Testament which contains so many embarrassing things about them? If they had vested interests, why would they accept Paul - a total stranger as God's messenger who would have greater insight than them? And why would they be willing to die rather than deny the resurrection?
  • If the Jewish religious leaders or Romans suspected that Jesus' disciples had stolen his body, they could have interrogated them with torture (human rights groups were formed only after Christian influence spread). Why didn't they? You cannot claim that they did but it was futile for why would eleven men choose to insist on a lie and be tortured rather than reveal where the stolen body is hid?
Thus, "the stolen body theory" fails.

The "swoon theory"

It states that Jesus did not die but fainted, and recovered inside the tomb. He then managed to escape out and claim to be risen from the dead. This theory is refuted by the following:-
  • There is a watertight case for Jesus' death.
  • All the grave clothes were found in the empty tomb (John 20:6-7). Why would a man who wants to boast about his resurrection go out into the city naked?
  • A person who regains consciousness inside a tomb would have to muster up the strength to unwrap more than 100 pounds (45 kg) of embalming material (see John 19:39-40, and compare with John 11:44), roll a massive stone that covered the grave (Mark 15:46), and overcome an armed Roman guard that would surely be woken up with the creaking sound of the rolling stone even if they were sleeping on duty! All this, after being crucified and being without food and water for three days! This is ridiculous.
  • Even if an emaciated Jesus showed himself to the disciples, why would they present him as victor over death as they do in Acts 2:32 and elsewhere?
  • Forty days after the resurrection (whether fake or real), there is no trace of Jesus. If he was an impostor trying to fake his own resurrection, why should he disappear from the scene?
Therefore, the "swoon theory" fails.

The "hallucination theory"

It suggests that the disciples were hallucinating when they supposedly saw and spoke to the risen Christ. First, let's observe some things about hallucination:-
  • Hallucination occurs when you expect something, hope for something, or have been taking drugs, or are emotionally distressed.
  • Hallucination is more of an exception than a rule. In an auditorium of five hundred people, perhaps a few may be hallucinating.
  • When more than one person hallucinates, one does not expect agreement in the particular details of what they are seeing. Hallucination is subjective.
  • Those who hallucinate will not stand by their visions on pain of death.
Now note the following:-
  • The Roman soldiers were neither expecting nor hoping for the resurrection, but they accepted bribe money to explain the empty tomb by the "stolen body" theory. The Jewish leaders took the pragmatic step of bribing the Roman soldiers. This proves that they were not hallucinating. If you claim that there was no bribe attempt, it means that there was no empty tomb, because the stolen body theory is refuted above. Then why did no one produce Jesus' body and silence the hallucinating disciples?
  • Five hundred people saw the risen Christ together (1 Corinthians 15:6). This rules out hallucination.
  • Also note that in the above point, Paul is writing to the Corinthians just a few years after Christ's death. He would easily be discredited by living observers if he wrote something wrong.
  • The individual accounts of the resurrection tally with each other. This would not happen with subjective hallucination. The same applies to the subsequent teaching that the various disciples gave the church. They would not be able to put together a coherent New Testament theology if they were hallucinating.
  • The disciples were willing to die rather than deny their claims about the resurrection.
  • If there are eleven people hallucinating, there is no reason why a few years later, someone else (Paul) should start getting the same hallucinations, and be accepted by the other eleven as having greater insights than them.

Conclusion: The "hallucination theory" is false.

Positive evidence for the resurrection

The chief lines of evidence are as follows:-

  • John tells us he became convinced of the resurrection when he saw the linen clothes lying in the same position as they would have been when they were tightly wrapped around Jesus (John 20:6-8). He knew this refuted the "stolen body" theory because thieves would either take away the linen clothes or strew them around. John also knew that it is not possible for a person to unwrap the grave-clothes himself (John 11:44). Thus, the linen clothes also refute the "swoon" theory.
  • The change of heart of the disciples: Overcoming their crippling fear and disillusionment, the disciples preached Jesus Christ to others with boldness.
  • Paul: This man was persecuting Christians when the disciples of Christ were preaching the resurrection. But he had a sudden change - without interacting with the disciples - then he began preaching the same message as the disciples. He claimed to have an encounter with the risen Christ (read Acts 9, 1 Corinthians 9:1, 15:8, Acts 9, 22 and 26). He went a step further - he corrected the disciples (Galatians 2:11) and wrote more of the New Testament than they did! They humbly accepted that he had more revelation from God than they did (2 Peter 3:15-16).
  • The dramatic church growth that Jerusalem was witness to; If the resurrection account was flawed, eye-witnesses would have pointed it out, and the apostles would get no following.
  • The Jewish leaders (who didn't want people to believe the resurrection) chose not to re-close the tomb and pretend that nothing happened. They chose to bribe the Roman soldiers to sell the "stolen body" theory. This proves that within a few days, too many people had already seen the empty tomb. Naturally, those people would be keen to know where the body might be. This means that there would be no time for the disciples to even hide the body (since Jerusalem is extremely crowded during Passover). This in turn means that the resurrection is the only explanation for the empty tomb.
  • There was a simple way for the Jewish leaders (who didn't want people to believe the resurrection) to refute Jesus' resurrection. Take each of the eleven disciples and grill them separately - if the resurrection did not happen the disciples would have to invent cover up stories. It is next to impossible for eleven cover up stories to not have contradictions between themselves. Instead, when the Jewish leaders arrested the disciples, they merely threatened them to stop preaching (Acts, 4:15-21, Acts 5:28-33).
  • That the Bible writers record women learning of the resurrection first (and their own unbelief) is remarkable. Firstly, women didn't count for much as witnesses in Jewish society - thus, fraudulent authors wouldn't waste their time and space recording women. Secondly, it casts the apostles in a poor light - women were more spiritually astute than them.
  • The resurrection account includes the mention of one apostle as a particular failure. Thomas refused to believe in the resurrection until he personally saw Jesus and felt his body, earning for himself the nickname "Doubting Thomas". If the resurrection were a hoax perpetrated by all the apostles, they wouldn't single out Thomas for ignomy. If the resurrection were a hoax scheme that Thomas was not part of, he would have spent the rest of his life discrediting the other apostles. But he preached exactly the same message as them and took the message - his special failure included - all the way to India.
  • Jesus' family initially thought he was beside himself (John 7:5), but shortly after his death they put their faith in him (Acts 1:14). Two of his brothers, James and Jude, wrote the books in the New Testament named after them. Therefore, something dramatic must have happened and they must have found Jesus to be true.
  • The Biblical account records that even after the resurrection, the disciples missed the point completely - they thought that Jesus would overthrow the Romans and rule from Jerusalem (with them as his chief aides!). Jesus had to (yet again) reprove them and tell them that God's plan for them then was to tell others about him (Acts 1:6-8). Why include such unsavory details if the story is being concocted with vested interests?
  • If the disciples were fraudsters, why would they wait (or claim to wait) for six weeks before preaching the resurrection? (That they did not decide upon a special day to start is evinced by the fact that the anniversary of the start of the church was never celebrated). 

The images shows the "Garden Tomb", the likely tomb were Jesus was buried. For further discussion on the evidence for the resurrection, see:-

  • Frank Morrison, Who Moved the Stone?
  • J N D Anderson, The Evidence for the Resurrection
  • Copan, Paul, and Ronald K. Tacelli, eds. Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 2000
  • Habermas, Gary R., and Michael R. Licona. The case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2004
  • Licona, Michael R. Paul meets Muhammad: A Christian-Muslim Debate on the Resurrection. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2006
  • Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1998
  • Swinburne, Richard. The Resrreuction of God Incarnate. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2003
  • Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003
  • McDowell, Josh. The Resurrection Factor. San Bernardino, Calif.: Here's Life, 1981
  • Proctor, William. The Resurrection Report. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1998
  • Green, Michael. Christ is Risen: So What? Kent, England: Sovereign World, 1995
  • Tenney, Merril C. 1963. The Reality of the Resurrection. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
  • Zwemer, Samuel M 1947. The Glory of the Empty Tomb. New York, NY: Fleming H. Revell Co.

Conclusion

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an indisputable fact of history. The image shows the (new) wooden door to the Garden Tomb, Jerusalem, the likely site of Jesus' burial.

"I know pretty well what evidence is; and I tell you, such evidence as that for the Resurrection has never broken down yet." – Lord Lyndhurst, one of the greatest legal minds in British history, quoted in Wilbur Smith, Therefore Stand: Christian Apologetics, pp 425, 584 

"I have spent more than 42 years as a defense trial lawyer appearing in many parts of the world and am still in active practice. I have been fortunate to secure a number of successes in jury trials and I say unequivocally that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt." – Sir Lionel Luckhoo (of the Guinness Book of World Records fame for his unprecedented 245 consecutive murder trial acquittals), jurisprudential prodigy and international statesman.

In 1930, once skeptic, Frank Morrison set out to write a book disproving the resurrection as a groundless myth. But the more he studied the gospel records, the more he was shaken in his original intention, and the more he was convinced that in fact the resurrection did happen. The book he wrote was very different from the one he had originally planned. It is called Who Moved the Stone? and the opening chapter is entitled The Book that refused to be written. In the following chapters he goes on to explain "Why that other venture never came to port, what were the hidden rocks on which it foundered, and how I landed upon, to me, an unexpected shore' – the certainty that Jesus was, and is, alive."

"As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the events of the first Easter Day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the high court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling…As a lawyer, I accept (the Gospel evidence of the resurrection) unreservedly as the  Testimony of truthful men to facts that they were able to substantiate." – Sir Edward Clarke, quoted by J.R.W. Stott in Basic Christianity, IVP Press (1958), p46. 

"I have been used for many years to study the histories of other times and to examine and weight the evidence of those who have written about them, and I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort to the understanding of the fair inquirer, than the great sign which God hath given us that Christ dies and rose again from the dead."  Thomas Arnold, Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, Sermons on the Christian Life (London, 1859), p324

“I know the Resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren't true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn't keep a lie for three weeks. You're telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”  – Chuck Colson. Before Colson became a Christian, he was counsel to US President Nixon and convicted for wrongdoing in the Watergate scandal. 

Two atheist friends, author-cum-educator Gilbert West and jurist Edward Littleton, decided to disprove Biblical Christianity. West decided to disprove the resurrection of Jesus Christ and Littleton decided to explain away the conversion of New Testament author Paul. After a year's research, they both met to compare their findings and both of them had become ardent Christians, each confessing that as a result of their research no alternative was left them but to accept Christianity. [Taken from Homer Duncan, Doors of Hope, p22].

Simon Greenleaf (1783-1853), a principal founder of the Harvard Law School, professor there, and considered to be the world's greatest authority on "Evidence" wrote The Testimony of the Evangelists Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice in 1846. He had set out to disprove the resurrection but came to the conclusion that the witnesses were reliable, and the resurrection of Jesus occurred. 

Okay, granted that God raised Jesus from the dead. What does that imply for me?