The Resurection of Christ   
If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith 1 Corinthians 15:14

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead was seen as fundamental to Christian belief by the apostle Paul  but from earliest times this resurrection has been disputed. The following is a brief outline of some of the objections against and some of the evidence for his bodily resurrection.

Background

The objections started early!

How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised 1 Corinthians 15:12-13

Even in Corinth, one of the earliest epi-centres of the infant Christian church some doubted the resurrection of Jesus. Paul, their founder, writes to challenge this view but how did some Corinthian believers come to such a position? Leon Morris mentions some possible sources[1]
1) Some may of embraced the Sadducean theology that rejected resurrection altogether. However, this was a viewpoint that Jesus challenged  (Matthew 22:23-32).
(2) Some had imbibed Greek philosophy so that they believed in the immortality of the soul but rejected the resurrection of the body
(3) Some of them may of adopted Gnostic views and actually denied the resurrection of Christ.
(4) They were forerunners of the “overrealised” eschatology advocated later by Hymenaeus and Philetus in Ephesus (2 Tim. 2: 17-18), arguing that the resurrection has already occurred in a spiritual sense.
(5)  In their sacramental union with Christ they believed that they had received present immortality, and that what they denied therefore was the possibility  of death itself, a position  sometimes  held in conjunction with 4.
 

Modern Trends

In Recent History similar doubts have surfaced. Alistair McGrath gives an overview of some of the positions held[2]
  1. Enlightenment- The resurrection as a non event
  • Because one does not have personal first-hand experience of the resurrection (and people don’t rise from the dead now) why should we believe in something we have not seen? I would suggest however that this is a fundamentally flawed argument. Just because we haven’t seen something does not mean it doesn’t exist. No one has ever seen the inside of an atom, but much of our technology is built upon a belief that they exist. To deny the existence or possibility of something that has many other reasons for being credible just because I haven’t personally experienced it or fully understood is a somewhat closed mind-set. That sort of approach would of restricted the discovery of many significant advancements in our world.
  1. The resurrection as a myth
  • (David Friedrich Strauss in his life of Jesus 1835) The resurrection is recognised as of central importance to the Christian Faith but, in this view, it is seen as a product rather than the basis of the Christian Faith. The early disciples are not seen as liars or confused but as interpreting events in language that made sense in the culture of first century Palestine, dominated by a mythical worldview.
  • Rudolf Bultmann in a similar vein wrote – ‘The real Easter faith is faith in the word of preaching which brings illumination’ . For Bultmann Jesus was raised up in the preaching (Kerygma) of the early disciples – but it was still a myth not an historical event
  • Against this in, describing his journey to faith, C.S. Lewis wrote -  ‘I was by now too experienced in literary critiscm to regard the gospel as myth’ It seems that  Lewis’ appreciation of the way the biblical record have come to us was not consistent with understanding the writers as referring to a non-historical event.
  1. The call for a decision – Karl Bath
  • McGrath sees Bath’s views as difficult to follow, but essentially claiming that the events of the empty tomb should not be subject to historical scrutiny but that they call for a decision of faith.

Objections

He didn’t die

The swoon theory suggests that he didn’t actually die but passed out.  The main reason for this view is the relatively short space of time that Jesus was on the cross. We could also argue that we do hear accounts of people that have been perceived as dead but actually were in a deep level of unconsciousness or that they were mistaken for dead because of their injuries. It could be possible that this was true for Jesus but I would suggest this viewpoint is flawed for a number of reasons:
  1. The brutality of his experience before he was crucified:
  • Before Jesus was crucified he was flogged (Mt 27:26, Mk 15:15, Jn 19:1). The nature of a Roman flogging is well-known to historians. They used a multi-thonged whip in which were embedded various sharp objects, so that the flesh was torn from the victim's back. It was by no means unusual for victims to die from the wounds.
  • It was normal for a man being crucified to carry his own cross to the place of execution. Apparently, they followed the same procedure for Jesus initially (Jn 19:17). But it would appear that, following his flogging Jesus was already in such a weakened state that he couldn't continue, and it is recorded that, as they led him away another man (concerning whom the writers supply not only his name, but even the names of his sons) was pressed into service (Mt 27:32, Mk 15:21, Lk 23:26).
  1. Those who crucified him considered him dead
  • The task of crucifixion was entrusted to professional Roman soldiers (Mt 27:27-36, Mk 15:16, Lk 23:47, Jn 19:23) for whom crucifixion was a routine task, and failure to carry out such an order was punishable by death.
  • The Jewish rulers wanted to be quite sure Jesus was dead. They were present to witness the event (Mt 27:41, Mk 15:31, Lk 23:35)
  • The Roman soldiers wanted to be quite sure Jesus was dead.  They broke the legs of the two thieves, a standard method of accelerating death. Jesus, who we must remember had been flogged prior to his crucifixion, appeared to be dead already: but that wasn't good enough for them: so one of the soldiers stabbed him in the side with his spear, just to make quite sure. This incident is mentioned only in John's gospel, where it is strongly emphasised that this is not hearsay but an eye-witness report (Jn 19:31-5).
  • Pilate also wanted to be quite sure Jesus was dead. Mark records that he would not agree to the removal of the body, until after he had summoned the centurion and obtained confirmation that Jesus had been dead for quite some time (Mk 15:42-6)
  1. The medical evidence
  • Separation of blood and water –John 19:34,35. This was unusual in the eyewitness account and would not in Jesus’ day of been understood as medical proof of death. However the separation of blood and water is now understood to take place after death.
 

The disciples moved the body

Matthews gospel indicates that the Jewish and Roman authorities expected the disciples to steal the body and declare Jesus alive so they posted a guard and sealed the tomb (Mathew 27:63-66). A trained guard[3] would not be an easy obstacle for the disciples to overcome especially if they were expecting such an action. Matthews’s gospel also informs us that the Jewish authorities paid the guards to say that the disciples had stolen the body whilst they were sleeping. Although this report was widely accepted it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, as Yancey points out:
The alibi had obvious weaknesses (a hugh stone rolled away without disturbing sleep? And how could they identify the disciples if they were asleep?), but at least it kept the guards out of trouble[4]
Matthew also points out that some of the guards went into the city to report everything that had happened (Matthew 28:11), which implies that there were a number of guards on duty. Is it really likely given the tensions surrounding the death of Jesus that all of the guards would have been asleep?
 
We may also notice that if the twelve disciples had taken the body and fabricated a great deception then they paid a high price for it. All of them except John it appears were martyred and during their lives suffered a great deal for their faith. It seems quite unlikely that at least one of them wouldn’t of broken rank in the light of such harsh opposition.

The Jewish authorities took the body

The Jewish authorities would have nothing to gain from taking Jesus’ body other than stopping his disciples getting it. If they did have the body then the easiest way to refute the disciple’s claim that Jesus had risen from the dead would have been to produce the body.  There is no record of any claim that the Jewish authorities had the body.

Was an hallucination

Hallucination is possible after a traumatic event, but group hallucinations very unlikely. The New Testament records a number of times in which Jesus appeared to groups of believers and that on one occasion he appeared to over five hundred disciples at the same time.[5]

The gospel accounts are full of contradictions

It is true that the records of the  sequence of events surrounding  the resurrection and recorded in the gospels are  difficult to put together but as Yancy points out:
In short the gospels do not present the resurrection in the manner of apologetics, with arguments arranged to prove each main point, but rather as a shocking instruction that no one was expecting, least of all Jesus’ timorous disciples[6]
It is possible (and helpful) to offer possible explanations for the seeming discrepancies in the sequence of events between the gospel writers[7] but when the gospel writers recorded events as they drew them from first hand witnesses their main desire was not to ensure that their record synced with another gospel writer, but to record what primary witnesses were saying and what impact this had on them. We shouldn’t be surprised that this leads to the same event or even sequence of events being understood differently. In one sense it adds credibility to the accounts. We would expect differing perspectives or understanding of the same event if we were talking to different people for our report. Anyone who has collected view points on a major event would I’m sure of discovered that different perspectives on how things happened are offered but it doesn’t detract form the core of what actually happened. In this case the core of the event is that Jesus rose from the tomb!
 

Further evidence

 

The evidence of the church

  • Usually followers dispersed after the death of a new movement. If Jesus hadn’t rose surely his disciples would of all fled
  • The Church continued to grow.
  •  Baptism would have little meaning if Jesus hadn’t both died and rose again[8]
 

The grave clothes were left  John 20:6-8

  • If someone was stealing a body why would they go to the trouble of removing the grave clothes and then fold them up?
 

Evidence from Testimonies

  • First Witnesses were Women – In the culture in which the events of the resurrection took place a woman’s testimony had no legal status. If someone was fabricating the record of events to choose a woman as the primary witness of events would make no sense. The only reason a woman would be recorded as the first witness would be if one was seeking to record the facts.
  • When Luke records the book of Acts he indicates that Jesus revealed himself over a period of forty days ( a prolonged period) to his apostles (more than one person), spoke about the Kingdom of God (continued to teach them on the same theme as prior to his death and resurrection) and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive (such as allowing Thomas to touch the scars, eating with them, helping to cook breakfast etc)
  • 1 Corinthians 15:6 Indicates that Jesus on one occasion appeared to over five hundred people all in one go. Paul, the author, also indicates that some of these witnesses were still alive at the time of writing and could therefore collaborate this clam.
  • No one changed their story – we have no accounts of any of those first disciples who indicated that they had met Jesus changing their story. It is possible that a group of people could propagate an elaborate lie for personal gain. But many of those first disciples suffered for their faith, surely at least a few of them would of broken ranks for an easier life if they had not been telling the truth. 
  • Paul was against Christians and was one of the first persecutors of the early church. He would have had no reason to convert and loose the status he enjoyed as a Jewish religious leader. However the reason he does convert is because he claimed to of had encounter with the risen Christ 1 Corinthians 15:8 cf Acts 9:1-19
  • 11 out of the 12 Apostles died for their faith. Why would they all die for a lie?
  • People still claim to experience Him
 

Appendix: Possible timescale of Events[9]

This reconstruction may not be precisely correct in every detail. But it does show that it is perfectly possible to work out a credible course of events from the resurrection to the ascension, and that the various accounts are far from contradictory.
 
  1. On the Saturday, as it began to move into Sunday (te epiphoskouse, i.e. just before 6.00pm in Jewish timing), Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James visit the tomb, not to embalm, but to explore the situation (Matt. 27: 66 - 28: 1). To be sure, they were resting on the Sabbath (Luke 23:56) but this was within a Sabbaths day’s walk.
  1. Towards dawn on Easter day the stone is dislodged, and the guard scatter in panic (Matt. 28: 2-4).
  1. A little later the women arrive at the tomb and find it empty. They included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and Salome (Mark 16: 1-4, Luke 24: 1-3, 10; John 20: 1). Mary Magdalene alone is mentioned in St John’s account, for it was she who ran to give Peter the news: others were with her, as ‘we’ in John 20: 2 shows.
  1. While Mary Magdalene runs off (John 20: 2) the other women enter the tomb and see an angel (two in Luke who speaks to them (Mark 16: 5-7; Matt. 28: 5-7; Luke 24: 4-7).
  1. The women leave the tomb, and follow Mary to tell the disciples about the angel’s message (Mark 16: 7, 8; Matt. 28: 8; Luke 24: 8-11). Mark cannot mean by his enigmatic ‘they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ that their awe-induced silence was long lived: the previous verse had said ‘go, tell’.
  1. Peter and ‘the beloved disciple’ run to the tomb, and depart puzzled but with dawning faith induced by the grave clothes (John 20: 3-10). Luke 24: 12, which suggests Peter alone ran to the tomb, is omitted in the best texts of Luke.
  1.  Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb; when she arrives it is deserted. She sees the two angels inside the tomb, and turning away meets the risen Christ. She returns to tell the disciples, but they do not believe her (John 20: 11-18; Mark 16: 9-11).
  1. Some time early in the day Peter meets the Lord (Luke 24: 34; 1Cor. 15: 5). This is prior to Jesus’ appearing to any other of his male disciples.
  1. In the afternoon, Jesus appears to the two disciples walking to Emmaus. They rush back to town to tell the eleven (Luke 24: 13-35; Mark 16: 12f).
  1. On the first Easter evening, Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room. Cleopas and his companion are there, but Thomas is away (Mark 16: 14-18; John 20: 19-23; 1Cor. 15: 5). Jesus speaks of the Spirit he is about to send on them.
  1. A week later, still in Jerusalem, there is another appearance to the disciples, including Thomas (John 20: 26-9; Luke 24: 49).
  1. The disciples go back to Galilee where seven of them see Jesus after a night’s unproductive fishing on the lake (John 21: 1-22).
  1. Further appearances follow in Galilee throughout several weeks (Acts 1: 3, cf. John 20: 30), including an appearance to a crowd of 500 at once on a mountain where world mission is broached (1Cor.  15: 7, Matt. 28: 16-20). The identification of these two events is not certain but plausible. The 500 must have been in Galilee: there were only 120 disciples in Jerusalem by Pentecost (Acts 1: 15).
  1. Jesus returns to Jerusalem just before Pentecost. He appears to James, his brother (1Cor. 15: 7). But this might have taken place in Galilee after the 500 (which it immediately follows in Paul’s list). The Gospel of the Hebrews says that James saw Jesus in Jerusalem on the day of the resurrection. We do not know exactly when and where. But it is clear that some such encounter took place. James, an erstwhile sceptic, becomes leader of the Jerusalem Church (Mark 3: 21; John 7: 7; Acts 15: 13-21).
  1. The final appearance takes place outside the city, on Olivet. Jesus leaves them and is taken into heaven (Mark 16: 19; Luke 24: 50 – 22; Acts 1: 6-11; 1Cor. 15:7).
  1. The ending of Jesus’ time with the disciples gives way to the beginning of the age of the Spirit. At Pentecost (Acts 2: 1ff) there is a mighty visitation of the Spirit on the infant church, and he has not been withdrawn. With the exception made to transform Saul of Tarsus into Paul the apostle to the Gentiles, there were no more appearances.
 
 
 
 
 
[1] The First Epistle to the Corinthians NICNT p715
[2] McGrath A. Christian Theology – An Introduction p376-384
[3] Notice that the guard was probably Jewish
  • The Body was given to Joseph which meant it was no longer Roman property
  • Mathew 27:65  - could be ‘you already have a guard’
  • For a Roman guard to sleep was a capital offence so would they would not confess to it
  • They reported to the Jewish authorities Mathew 28:11
 
[4] Yancy The Jesus I never knew p213
[5] 1 Corinthians 15:6 Paul also mentions that at the time of writing many of these were still alive and therefore it would be possible to substantiate his claim.
[6] Yancy Phillip the Jesus I never knew p213
[7] See appendix for a suggested sequence of events offered by Michael Green
[8] The practice of the early church would have been baptism by immersion and not sprinkling. The practice of sprinkling tends to lose some of the symbolism intended in Baptism.
[9] Michael Green – The Empty Cross of Jesus