Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?
Some have rejected the Christian faith without ever having wrestled with the above question. There are many, more personal reasons to reject Christ. Perhaps the following sound familiar:
- Christians are hypocrites.
- Christians are judgmental.
- I got burned by a church before.
- I don’t want to become a holy roller.
- Christianity is just a crutch for the weak.
- I just can’t believe in a God who would send people to hell.
- Modern, educated people don’t believe in it.
- I don’t need Christianity to be happy.
- I can’t go for a religion that is against gays and women’s lib.
- All those meaningless traditions turn me off.
But for the next few minutes, as you read this chapter, forget the religious people who turn you off. Forget the pews, the stained glass, pipe organs, robes, steeples, the fund- raising, the TV evangelists, and the scandals. As you search for the truth, please remember that these church experiences, whether they are painful to you or comforting, do not make up the Christian faith. Evaluate Christianity for what it really is — the story of a man who claimed to be God, and rose from the dead to prove it.
This Jesus rising from the dead is called the resurrection. It is the one hook on which all of Christianity hangs. It’s like a hanging plant. If the hook breaks, then the plant falls. In the same way, if the resurrection were not true, then the rest of Christianity falls, because all of Jesus’ claims would then be in doubt as a result. Without the authentication of the resurrection miracle, His teachings would then be mere ramblings of a radical Jewish rabbi, His miracles only tricks of a clever magician, and His claims about Himself only delusions of a crazy man. That this belief is essential to the Christian faith is the reason why one of His followers, Paul, wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith… And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”
Now if the resurrection were true, then all of His promises (which put together form the Christian religion) would have the divine backing needed to be believed on by the world. It would be as if Jesus were saying to the world, “If I can rise from the dead, just like I said I would, then I have proven that I AM God, and I can certainly work a miracle in your life too.” This is why any examination of Christianity must start with an examination of the resurrection.
The Resurrection Story In A Nutshell
For an overview of the resurrection story, let’s start with Matthew 28:1-7.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; He has risen, just as He said. Come and see the place where He lay. Then go quickly and tell His disciples. He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him. Now I have told you.”
Answering the Objections
Objection #1: The story of Jesus is all a fairy tale. He never even existed.
Some object to the above resurrection story, claiming that it, as well as the entire story of Jesus, is pure fiction. But this objection is absurd. The following quotes give evidence that Jesus at least existed.
Cornelius Tacitus, Roman historian, 112 A.D.: “Hence to suppress the rumor, he [Nero] falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius…” (Annals XV.44)
Suetonius, Roman historian, 120 A.D.: “As the Jews were making constant distubances at the instigation of Chrestus [Christ], he expelled them from Rome.” (Life of Claudius 25.4)
Flavius Josephus, Jewish-Roman historian, ca. 100 A.D.: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of christians so named from him are not extenct at this day.” (Antiquities. xviii.33)
New York Times, August 1992: “Israeli archaeologists have discovered the family tomb of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who presided at the trial of Jesus and delivered Him to the Romans to be crucified… through the writing on the walls of the tomb and the artifacts found with the bones, and the inscription on the ossuary, the remains were indeed those of the priestly family”
Objection #2: Jesus revived Himself, and pulled a hoax.
No. Impossible by natural means, because Jesus was dead. The gospel of John gives evidence of this:
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. (John 19:31-35)
Even non-believers of the resurrection claim that He was dead. Referring again to the quote by Cornelius Tacitus, the Roman historian and governor of Asia states, “Christus… was put to death by Pontius Pilate…” (Annals XV.44) And Lucian of Samosata, a satirist of the second century, and a non-believer, writes of Christ: “the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world…” (The Passing Peregrinus)
Not only did the soldiers pronounce Jesus dead, but also a physician, Samuel Houghton, M.D., explains that flow of blood and water is clear evidence of death: “There remains, therefore, no supposition possible to explain the recorded phenomenon except the combination of the crucifixion and the rupture of the heart.” (McDowell, J., Evidence That Demands A Verdict, 1979, p. 198)
Even if Jesus were to revive Himself, His burial would make it impossible for Him to break out of the tomb by natural means. According to John 19:40, Jesus was wrapped like a mummy, making it impossible for an ordinary man to escape:
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
Jesus was also placed in a rock tomb, making it even more impervious to escape. Matthew records, “and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb…(27:60)” Archeological excavations today reveal that the typical rock tomb during the Roman era would be impossible to escape from. Such a tomb was a simple cave, with solid rock on all sides. There would be only one entrance, blocked by a wheel-shaped rock that was about seven feet in diameter. It would take several men to move the rock.
No, escape was impossible. Especially after considering that Jesus also underwent beatings, floggings, whippings, a crown of thorns, and blood loss, it would be impossible for a natural man to revive himself, and still escape from such a secured tomb. Although the greatest magicians have been known to escape from chained trunks, they could not do so after enduring the kind of torture Jesus went through.
Objection #3: The disciples exaggerated the story.
Possible, but pointless. It would serve no purpose to exaggerate a resurrection story. The disciples did not need to “tweak” the details in order to impress the masses, if that were really their intent for writing.
Unlike the reason that I might exaggerate a fishing story. I might be tempted to tell my listeners that I caught a two-foot striped bass, and that I fought with it for ten minutes, and that there were gallons of water splashing into the boat, and that the fish bent my pole until it was the shape of a horseshoe. The truth is that I only caught a tiny, six-inch bluegill, while I was sleeping. And it practically jumped into the boat by itself. My story would be an exaggeration of the truth. I still caught a fish. But I would need to embellish the story in order to impress my listeners.
Not so with the resurrection. The truth needs no embellishment in order to amaze. Even if the disciples did exaggerate, and if there really were no angels, no great light, no one falling down at his feet, no miraculous catch of fish, no cloth that folded up by itself, the point that there was even a resurrection still makes for an amazing story that begs for our serious consideration.
Objection #4: The disciples were hallucinating.
No. Too many eyewitnesses. The apostle Paul records in 1 Corinthians 15:6, “After that, He appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time…”
Also, are these the words of those who have hallucinations, or believe in them?
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life… We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. (1 John 1:1-3)
Moreover, even if the disciples were prone to hallucinations, it is improbable that their written testimonies of their visions would agree as they do. What kind of drug, or kind of psychological disease would cause the eleven disciples to have all seen a risen Jesus, preach the same story, and teach the same doctrine. Says Heinrich Kluerer, “…the hallucination is not a static phenomenon but essentially a dynamic process, the instability of which reflects the very instability of the factors and conditions associate with its origin.” (Hoch, Paul H., Psychopathology of Perception, 1965, p. 18) It is very unlikely, therefore, that even two of the disciples would have the same hallucination at the same time.
Objection #5: The disciples pulled a hoax, and actually stole the body.
No. Not only was the tomb impervious to escape, it was also impervious to a break-in.
The Romans put a seal on the tomb. Matthew 27:65 records, “Pilate answered, ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone.” A seal is a leather strap, placed around the stone at the mouth of the tomb, for the same purpose that a wax seal is stamped on letter envelopes. Not only does it further immobilize the rock, but it also reveals whether or not the rock has been tampered with from the outside. The disciples would not be able to steal Jesus’ body without breaking the seal.
Also, guards were posted. Matthew 27:66 records, “‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered… So they went… posting the guard… the guards were so afraid of Him that they shook and became like dead men.” Could the disciples have overtaken the guards? No, they were no match for well-trained, armed Roman guards. Could the disciples have stolen the body while the guards were asleep? No, it is improbable that the guards would be so foolish as to all sleep at the same time. The fear of punishment by their Roman superiors would drive them to keep at least one soldier awake at any given time. Therefore, it is improbable that the disciples would have any chance of stealing the body unnoticed.
Furthermore, the disciples were all tortured or killed for propagating the resurrection story. The historian Eusebius, around 250 A.D., records that Matthew was killed with a sword. Mark was dragged through the streets of Alexandria. Luke was hanged on an olive tree. John was banished to prison on the island of Patmos. Peter was crucified upside down at Rome. James was beheaded at Jerusalem. James the Less was beaten with a club. Bartholomew was skinned alive. Andrew was tied to a cross. Now, if the resurrection story were a hoax, these tortures would have forced at least one of these disciples to admit to stealing the body. But none of them did. Therefore, no one stole the body.
Of course, many great leaders have died for various causes throughout history. And many have died for ideas that were later to be proven wrong. But they all believed in what they thought to be true. No one died for he/she believed to be false. The same applies to the disciples. They must have all believed the resurrection to be true, because no one admitted it to be a hoax.
Could one disciple have admitted to stealing the body, while the historians neglected to record it? No. Hoaxes don’t last long once the truth is leaked. For example, the skull of “Piltdown Man” was no longer taken seriously once the scientists discovered it contained ape parts. The “UFO” circles made in the wheat fields of England were dropped from the headlines once the perpetrators admitted to making them. The Shroud of Turin no longer appeared in magazines once the scientists dated the materials from the seventh century. Now if the resurrection story were a secret conspiracy, all it would take to break it would be for one disciple to admit to stealing the body. But such is not the case. The resurrection story survived, because all the disciples held firm to their claim, that Jesus miraculously rose from the dead, even under torture. A hoax could never survive under such persecution.
Objection #6: The disciples were mistaken.
No. There is very little room for mistakes here: Luke’s attention to detail, and John’s emphasis on having seen, heard, and touched the risen Jesus, the testimony of the other disciples, and the presence of 500 other eyewitnesses.
If it were not for the resurrection, the Christian faith would stand on the same ground as all other well-intended, but mistaken, ideologies. Some boast of martyrs, just as Christians do. Some boast of a massive following. Some boast of having PhD’s in the field. Some boast of a long history. But what makes Christianity different is that it is validated by a great miraculous event, not an idea.
And it is harder to make mistakes about events than about ideas. That is why all of us who have seen Bill Clinton on television agree that he was elected president of United States. That is an event. No mistakes. But not all of us agree with his policies. Those are ideas. Some of us, then, are making mistakes.
The same with the resurrection. The 500+ eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus could not make a mistake about it, because the resurrection is an event.
Of course, once in a while, mistakes about events happen, like a sighting of Elvis, leading many to the belief that he is still alive. Couldn’t the disciples have been mistaken in the same way, aided by mass hysteria?
No. Jesus has the testimony of 500+ eyewitnesses. Elvis does not. The truthfulness of Jesus’ witnesses were tested by torture. Elvis’ witnesses were not. Jesus’ witnesses not only saw Him, but touched and heard as well. Elvis’ witnesses did not. Jesus appeared over a period of forty days. Elvis only for a brief moment in Kalamazoo, MI. Jesus’ witnesses had to be so sure about what they saw, in order to tell about the impossible. Elvis’ witnesses had too easy; their story is about a hero who simply went into hiding.
Your Verdict Please
So if the resurrection account is not a hoax, nor an exaggeration, nor a hallucination, nor a mistake, then what is it? This leaves us only two explanations to choose from. Either Jesus and the disciples were madmen, each and every one of them sacrificing their lives to deceive the world for an unknown motive, or that Jesus really rose from the dead.
John Singleton Copley, one of the great legal minds in British history and three times High Chancellor or England, wrote, “I know pretty well what evidence is, and I tell you, such evidence as that for the resurrection has never broken down yet.”
Did it happen? Is Jesus alive? Consider the eyewitnesses, the arguments, the rebuttals, the testimonies, and documentation. What is your verdict now?
“These miracles are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:31)
Randal K. Young