The Resurrection of Jesus A Fact of History
The Resurrection of Jesus: Is A fact of History!
From its earliest beginnings Christianity has been based on a single central foundation, the proclamation that Jesus was raised from the dead. He is, therefore, declared by God to be both Lord and Christ, Judge and Saviour of the whole of humanity. Because of this, the resurrection of Jesus is of vital importance.
Did Jesus rise from the dead?
If the resurrection did not happen in the manner described in the New Testament then the historical basis of Christianity crumbles away and virtually nothing is left. If, on the other hand, the resurrection really did happen, it is probably the most significant event in the history of the world from its creation to the present day.
Before considering the resurrection it is useful to consider the common ground between those who believe that the resurrection took place and those who deny it:
Jesus was a real historical figure. Everyone agrees on this because there are simply too many witnesses, both friendly and hostile. These include: – 27 New Testament documents from 8 different writers, large numbers of church fathers, 7 Roman historians (the earliest writing only a short time after the crucifixion), and the Jewish Talmud.
Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem somewhere around 30 AD. This is also testified to by contemporary writings including the gospels and epistles but also documents outside the Bible.
Jesus was buried in a tomb somewhere in or near Jerusalem. To believe otherwise would require a miracle equivalent in magnitude to the resurrection. As the body did not dematerialise on the cross and was not taken straight up into heaven, it must have been placed somewhere after the crucifixion.
This foundation leads us on to consider evidence for the resurrection itself.
The Empty Tomb
Three days after the crucifixion, the tomb of Jesus was empty.
The witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb are very powerful.
First, we have the witness of various disciples who saw the tomb empty:
“Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first, and stooping to look in he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb, he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed” (John 20:3-8).
What is interesting about this witness of the disciples is that it is never presented as conclusive, or even as important. The reason for this is that there was no need for a human witness to the empty tomb at the time at which the gospels were written, because the witness of the whole population of Jerusalem – not to mention pilgrims from all over the known world – was that the tomb was empty.
The tomb was near Jerusalem. Anyone who wished to find out for themselves could go down to see it; to do so would take only a very short time. Yet Jerusalem was the cradle of the infant church; thousands of people were converted there very soon after the crucifixion:
“So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).
This must mean that the tomb was empty; it would have been impossible to convince anybody, let alone the thousands who joined the emerging church, that Jesus had been miraculously raised to life if his body was still obviously inside its tomb.
A final witness to the fact of the empty tomb is given by the reaction of the authorities of the day. Here is the explanation of events to which they lent their weight:
“… Tell people his disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep… so they did as they were directed, and this story has been spread among the Jews to this day” (Matthew 28:13-15).
This story was current among Jews from the earliest times, and we have independent evidence of this. For example, Justin quotes a debate in which his opponent refers to Jesus as:
“One Galilean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb… and now deceive them by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven” (Justin Martyr: Dialogue Against Trypho,108 [c.AD150]).
The story does, in fact, persist to the present day.
The important point about this explanation is that it would be unnecessary if the body of Jesus was still safely in the tomb. There is only one conclusion that can be drawn: The tomb was empty.
The Resurrection Appearances
The other main plank of the evidence is the witness given by people who saw Jesus alive after the resurrection. These include the following:
After the crucifixion, on their own evidence, they gave up hope. When Jesus was arrested his disciples ran away (Mark 14:50); after his death, they met in a locked room for fear of the authorities (John 20:19). Later they changed from broken and terrified men to confident preachers of the resurrection who took their message with them over the whole known world,
despite intense dangers and, in the end, their own deaths. Something must have occurred to cause this great change. Their own witness is that they met the resurrected Jesus, saw him, touched him, and ate with him. The disciples were not easily convinced.
They did not jump to conclusions, even when they saw the empty tomb.
Thomas, for example, required the direct evidence of his own senses to convince him that Jesus had really risen:
“Now Thomas, one of the twelve called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said unto them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side I will not believe'” (John 20:24,25).
A week later, of course, Thomas did meet the risen Jesus, and was convinced. What is important about the difficulty of convincing Thomas was that he was no different from the other disciples. They were all hard-headed men, peasants, fishermen and a tax collector; it took convincing evidence to prove to them that Jesus really was risen. And that evidence was so convincing that the disciples were later prepared to be put to death rather than deny the resurrection of their Lord.
The Five Hundred Witnesses
In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul gives a list of some of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Among these is the following:
“Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:6).
This appearance to over 500 people is a major witness to the resurrection. Lined up in single file, the witnesses would form a queue a third of a mile long (half a kilometre). The apostle tells us that most of the five hundred were alive in 55 AD, when the letter was written; there is no point in his making that statement unless his readers could cross-examine some of them and thus hear the evidence for themselves. Presumably some of the witnesses were apostles, or evangelists, and travelled around the various congregations.
Among the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection there are people who were hostile to Jesus as well as those who were friendly. One such witness was James, the brother of Jesus. During Jesus’ ministry his family refused to accept his claims to be a teacher from God. Jesus himself said:
“A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house” (Mark 6:4).
They seem to have been slightly hostile towards him, and attempted, on at least one occasion, to prevent him from teaching (Mark 3:21). John’s gospel summarises the attitude of Jesus’ family with the words: “For even his brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5).
Later on James the brother of Jesus (see Mark 6:3 for details of Jesus family) became a follower of Jesus, and rose to be an important figure in the Jerusalem congregation (Acts 15:13, Acts 21:18). The change is very marked: James changes from being a total unbeliever in Jesus to one of the chief apostles. The Roman historian Josephus tells us that James was put to death for his beliefs, being stoned by order of the high priest during the interregnum which followed the reign of Festus in AD 61. The Bible tells us that this change occurred because James met Jesus after the resurrection: “Then he appeared to James” (1 Corinthians 15:7).
The unbelieving brother, then, believed that Jesus was alive, because he could not deny what he had actually seen.
The other hostile witness to the resurrection of Jesus was Saul of Tarsus. Immediately after Pentecost, Saul was occupied in persecuting the emerging church, and imprisoning its members:
“But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3).
In the end, of course, Saul met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, and this convinced him of the resurrection so that he became a follower of Jesus. He changed his name to Paul and became an apostle, preaching the gospel on journeys throughout the Eastern Mediterranean area. Paul’s own comment on this is given us in 1 Corinthians 15:8,9:
“Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
What greater witness could Jesus have? One who actively persecuted the church of God – no-one could deny that he did do this, not even his enemies. What other explanation could there possibly be, then, other than that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead and changed Paul’s life so profoundly?
The Witness of the Early Church
The witness of the resurrection appearances sounds very clear, but we need to be sure that it was not invented later by clever men. The witness of the apostles was given to the early church, and the members of the early church testify to the truth of their statements by the way that they were prepared to suffer extreme persecution rather than deny the resurrection of Jesus. The early church had all the evidence laid out before it and found that evidence so compelling that its members were willing to die, in the most horrific manner, rather than deny their faith.
The Roman historian Tacitus describes the persecution that the early Christians suffered under Nero with the following words:
“Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames. These served to illuminate the night when daylight failed’ (Tacitus, Annals 15.14:6).
Other Roman writers give similar descriptions such as this one by Sulpicius Severus:
“[Nero] therefore turned the accusation against the Christians, and the most cruel tortures were accordingly inflicted upon the innocent. Nay, even new kinds of deaths were invented, so that being covered in the skins of wild beasts, they perished by being devoured by dogs, while many were crucified or slain by fire, and not a few were set aside for this purpose, that, when the day came to a close, they should be consumed to serve for light during the night” (Sulpicius Severus, Chronicle).
Anyone who, after the reign of Nero, was found to be a follower of Christ, was put to death, usually by torture. But they could avoid death by recanting their faith. Here is a record from the second century which explains the procedure:
“If they are accused and convicted, they must be punished – yet on this condition, that whoso denies himself to be a Christian, and makes the fact plain by his action, that is, by worshipping our gods, shall obtain pardon on his repentance, however suspicious his past conduct may be” (Letter of Trajan [Emperor] to Pliny [Governor] – Pliny, Epistles -10.97:2).
The required sacrifice was a pinch of incense, offered on the altar of a Roman god.
It is difficult to imagine an easier method of escaping death by torture. But despite this the early Christians were noted for their determination not to avoid the most unpleasant deaths. Not only did few Christians deny Christ, but more and more people continued to become convinced of the truth of Christianity, despite the very real danger of an unpleasant death.
Clearly the evidence given by the apostles that we have read, was real and convincing to people at the time, in a much better position to check on that evidence than we are today.
Summary of the Evidence
The evidence for the resurrection consists of the same types of evidence that one might require for any other event in history. It consists of:
The physical (‘forensic’) evidence at the empty tomb;
The human witness of the resurrection appearances of Jesus.
This evidence is certified by the early church, whose witness is written in the blood of its early believers. Any explanation of events must give a satisfactory explanation of all of this evidence. The obvious explanation is the one given in the Bible, that the resurrection of Jesus actually did take place, and that Jesus is, therefore, still alive in heaven.
Since the first century there have been a number of attempts to explain the evidence summarised above, in ways other than by the resurrection of Jesus. These attempts have all failed. Here is a summary of some of the more common of them.
The Stolen Body
The oldest alternative explanation of the empty tomb is the theory launched by the authorities in the first century, the theory that the disciples stole the body while the guards were asleep. This theory is preserved in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 28:13-15) and also in writings of the next century. This story is a significant piece of evidence in itself as it confirms the presence of a guard on the tomb.
Judea in 30 AD was a province subject to revolt and terrorism. It was no place for soldiers to sleep in the open: any soldiers who were not alert were likely to be killed by Zealots. It is thus unlikely that my guard would go to sleep, and inconceivable that they would sleep so soundly that a group of men large enough to carry away a dead body could roll aside the stone over the grave mouth (this itself would be a noisy operation) without at least one of the guard waking up.
More significant still is the condition of the disciples. Before the resurrection they were broken men, afraid and in hiding. Afterwards they were bold preachers of the gospel, who were prepared to turn the world upside down in order to preach the risen Christ. Not only that, but they were almost all put to death for their faith (probably John was the only disciple to die a natural death, and even he was exiled). None of them ever denied their faith in the risen Christ. It would take a group of several men to remove a body from a grave; if the body of Jesus had been stolen all of the men in the group would have known that the resurrection never took place, and at least one of them would have been expected to break down and confess in the face of certain and unpleasant death. If one of the disciples had confessed to stealing the body, we would certainly have known it, because the Roman and Jewish authorities would have ensured that it was reported. That it was not reported shows that it never happened, and that the disciples did not steal the body.
Finally, if the explanation of the empty tomb was that the body was stolen, the resurrection appearances could never have occurred. Over five hundred people saw Jesus alive after his resurrection. It is inconceivable that the whole five hundred stole the body together, so some of them must have been outside any conspiracy to deceive. This means that at least one of the resurrection appearances was real, and hence that the resurrection really occurred.
The Swoon Theory
This attempted explanation suggests that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but simply fainted, and later recovered in the cool of the tomb.
This is highly unlikely on medical grounds. Jesus was nailed to a cross, which means that both his hands and his feet were pierced by the nails. He had been scourged, and a spear was thrust into his side. One significant fact about this penetration by the spear was that from the wound came “blood and water” (John 19:34). The least damaging way that this could have occurred is if the spear had pierced Jesus’ lung.
During crucifixion, body fluid would collect in the lungs, and it is this fluid that causes death by drowning if the crucifixion is left to its end. The body fluid would look like water and there would probably be some blood with it. However, for a spear thrust to pierce the lungs from below (as it would have to with the body on a cross) it would have to pass through other vital organs. If Jesus were not already dead, the spear thrust would have killed him. Even if, by some miracle, he survived the spear thrust, being left unattended in a sealed tomb, without medical care, food or water for three days would cause death.
Going into more detail here, the Gospel records show that Jesus was in a state of hypovolemic shock. This means that a person is suffering from losing large amounts of blood. Hypovolemic shock does four things:
- The heart races because its trying to pump blood that isn’t there;
- The blood pressure drops, causing faint or collapse;
- The kidneys stop producing urine to maintain what volume is left;
- Finally, the person becomes very thirsty as the body craves fluids to replace the lost blood volume (Lee Strobel: The Case For Christ, Zondervan, 1998, p196).
The gospel records strongly indicate that Jesus was in hypovolemic shock as he staggered to carry the horizontal beam of the cross to the execution site. Finally he collapsed and a soldier made Simon of Cyrene carry the cross bar for him. Later Jesus called out that he was thirsty, and a bystander offered him some vinegar. So because of the terrible effects of the flogging, there is no question that Jesus was in a critical condition even before the crucifixion nails were driven through his hands and feet.
At the site of crucifixion, his wrists were nailed to the patibulum (cross beam) and, after the patibulum was lifted onto the upright post, or stipes, his feet were nailed to the stipes. The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion is an interference with normal respirations. In plain English, Jesus would have struggled to breathe. Accordingly, death results primarily from hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia, and probably – in Jesus’ case – a ruptured heart to boot.
Jesus’ death was ensured by the thrust of a soldier’s spear into his side. An eyewitness testified that he saw blood and water come from Jesus’ side, water and blood would only flow from the wound if the heart was ruptured (Samuel Houghton MD, University of Dublin, cited by McDowell: Evidence that Demands a Verdict). It is believed that the crucifixion caused Jesus’ heart to rupture, and that this was the main cause of death. Modern medical interpretation of the historical evidence confirms that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross (W. D. Edwards, W. J. Gabel, and F. E. Hosmer: “On the physical death of Jesus Christ”, JAMA 255: 1455-1463).
Indeed, an eyewitness stated that blood and water came out of the pierced side of Jesus (Jn. 19: 34-35). Had Jesus have been alive when the spear pierced his side, strong spouts of blood would have occurred with every heartbeat. Instead the observer noticed semi-solid dark red clot seeping out, distinct from the accompanying watery serum. This is evidence of massive clotting of blood in the main arteries, and is exceptionally strong medical proof of death. The blood and water from the spear thrust is, therefore, proof positive that Jesus was already dead (Michael Green, cited by McDowell: Evidence that Demands A Verdict).
There would certainly be no possibility of any victim, who had somehow managed to survive crucifixion, carrying out what Jesus would have had to do to escape the tomb. He would have had to release himself from the grave clothes, roll aside the stone that covered the tomb from the wrong side, fight his way past the guard and walk seven miles to Emmaus for a resurrection appearance. All this would have had to be done with badly wounded feet and hands – and with a pierced lung. Not only that, but be would then have had to have fooled the disciples into believing that his new condition was that of eternal life, more vital and powerful than ordinary healthy life. This was simply not possible.
The Modernist Theory
This theory is put forward by many modern churchmen as an alternative to belief in a physical resurrection. It claims that the resurrection narratives were never intended to be taken literally, but were convenient religious myths intended to convey a deeper, but non-literal meaning. Modernists claim that the resurrection never occurred, but that the early church was propounding a belief in the lasting value of Jesus’ teaching and in the philosophical idea of renewal in the resurrection stories.
- There are three problems with the modernist theory:
Modern European theologians may think in terms of myths expressed in such concrete terms, but such a concept was foreign to first century Christians. The early church was not made up of modern theologians but of ordinary uneducated people, farmers, peasants, slaves and fishermen. It is unlikely that such people would ever think of devising such a myth, and even less likely that they world express it in such realistic terms.
- People do not die for a convenient mythical expression of some philosophical truth. Instead they find some alternative mythical expression for the same truth. To fit the modernist philosophy of resurrection as renewal they could have chosen the renewal of vegetation in the spring or the lengthening of the day after the winter solstice.
- Finally it is not possible for an expression of a theological truth to produce an empty tomb, but the empty tomb existed and is testified by the Jewish authorities, which would have no vested interest in the mythology of resurrection.
The Wrong Tomb Theory
This is an ingenious theory which suggests that the disciples went to the wrong tomb and, finding it empty, assumed that Jesus was raised from the dead. The theory has several insuperable problems. First, it requires that all the disciples went to the same wrong tomb and none of them noticed their mistake; indeed, it also requires that none of the disciples ever discovered the error. Moreover, it requires that the authorities never discovered the error either. If the disciples had made a mistake, one would have expected the authorities to have made a public correction; one would certainly not expect them to invent a story about a stolen body. Third, the theory requires amnesia in Joseph of Arimithea. The tomb was built and owned by Joseph, who had intended it for his own use; one would expect him to remember where his own tomb was sited! Finally, the wrong tomb theory gives no explanation of the resurrection appearances.
The Collective Hallucination Theory
This theory suggests that the resurrection appearances were a psychological phenomenon caused by the intense desire of the disciples to see Jesus again, coupled with an expectation of the resurrection.
The first problem is that there does not appear to have been any such expectation. The gospels are full of explanations of why the disciples failed to understand that Jesus was to be killed and raised again from the dead (e.g. Mark 9:30-32). Second, the hallucinations were seen by over five hundred people at once, something that is very rare for any kind of psychological phenomenon. Not only that but the appearances continued for forty days and then ceased after the ascension, something else that is unheard of in hallucinations.
Finally, no amount of collective hallucination can produce an empty tomb, and we have irrefutable evidence that the empty tomb existed.
The resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact, it really occurred. This tells us several things about the way that God is at work.
First, it shows that God intervenes in the world. Having intervened once, there is no reason to suppose that he has not intervened before and will not do so again. The resurrection is a proven miracle, and thus establishes that God does perform miracles.
Second, the resurrection shows God’s complete support for and approval of Jesus. It sets the seal of approval on Jesus’ claims for himself and validates them completely.
Most significant of these claims is the claim that Jesus will one day return to be judge of mankind, as we are told in Acts 17:31:
“[God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world, by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.”
Third, the resurrection of Jesus shows that God has accepted the sacrifice of Jesus, and that there is forgiveness for our sins, and finally it shows that death has been overcome. One thing that is certain about life is that we must die. But equally certain is the fact that Jesus rose to life again and became the first fruits of a body of faithful people who will also rise from the dead.
The resurrection of Jesus gives hope and confidence to us all. If we are prepared to make Christ our leader in life, we can expect to follow him into life eternal. The resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee of this fact. Jesus promised those who believed that he would raise them from the dead when he returns to set up God’s kingdom (John 6; 1 Corinthians 15). There is overwhelming evidence which shows that he will return very soon.
Jesus wants us to be ready for his return by: believing that he rose from the dead, changing our lives by putting God first, and by being baptized (Mark 16:16; John 3:5).
Did Jesus rise from the dead? Belief in the resurrection boils down to our responses to two questions:
Was Jesus dead when he was taken down from the cross? – The medical evidence, and the testimony of eyewitnesses, says: “Yes!”
Was he seen alive after his death? The testimony of over 500 eye witnesses says: “Yes!”
WHAT IS YOUR VERDICT?