Jesus physically rose from the dead. This statement, if true, is the most radical statement in human history. If there is one thing that seems certain about the human condition, even more so than taxes, it is death. This event separates Christianity from all other religions, and makes Christ unique among religious leaders. Islam does not make that claim for Mohammed, nor Judaism for Moses nor Buddhism for Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha. Yet the Bible makes that claim for Jesus Christ. Not only does it make the claim but stakes the truth or falsehood of Christianity, the religion founded by Jesus Christ, on that event (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4). If Jesus physically rose from the dead, Christianity is true. If not, it is false. The most widespread religion in the world is thus founded on the most preposterous claim in the world.
This question is important for people who call themselves Christians as well as for people who do not. Three acquaintances of mine, calling themselves Christians:
1. One occasionally attends a Lutheran church with his family. When asked about death after life, he says that he believes in reincarnation.
2. Another works at a Catholic school and attends a Catholic church. At the end of a conversation on the Saturday before Easter, his colleague says “He is risen, He is risen indeed!” The man shrugs, and walks away.
3. A third, a Baptist preacher, states in an Easter message that he does not know what happens after death, either to Jesus or anyone else.
Such opinions are not an option for mankind. Either Jesus rose again and we believe what He said and do what He commands, or He did not and we find a different, or no, religion. The Bible leaves us no middle ground.
A note about “Proof”
In fields like mathematics it is possible to be certain about when something is proved and when it is not. Few would doubt that 1+1=2, and those who did would be considered diseased or dimwits. Observations in the natural sciences are not considered as certain as the rules of mathematics but still good enough to “take to the bank.” Observations in the social sciences, largely due to the inherent unpredictability of man, are still less so. It is possible to know how an inanimate object or a chemical compound will behave under a specified set of conditions; people are much less certain.
History is less certain still. It cannot be repeated, and accounts that we have are invariably limited. One limitation is space; it is impossible to record every detail about an historical event, nor even to know exactly which details are critical and which are not. Another limitation is perspective; every person has inherent biases and motivations which color what they see, how they see it, and what and how they write about it.
It does not follow, however, that nothing in history can be proved or believed. Every legal case hinges on the historical record; who said and did what to whom. Every science is based on history; who discovered what, when and how? Every human family is founded in history; who married whom, who are their children and how do we know? Every human activity is set in history; who earned what degree, did what job, and received what accolade? It is impossible for man to ignore history, and disingenuous for skeptics to disallow the historical record as a source of real knowledge.
Since history is less certain than some other fields, our burden of proof is different and more subjective. The American legal system will convict a defendant of a crime only if the jury is convinced “beyond reasonable doubt.” For any given case, that standard is not objective but rather inherent in each individual and in the mix of individuals known as the jury. The standard “beyond reasonable doubt” is the standard that I hope readers will hold for the question, “Did Jesus physically rise again?”
Criteria for accepting historical claims
1. Multiple witnesses, preferably independent
2. Multiple perspectives on the event
3. Confirmation by people who had something to lose by the telling of the story. In the story of Jesus’ resurrection, the chief priests definitely had something to lose by admitting that His body was gone. The fact that they confirmed it (Matthew 28:11-15) adds weight to the historical claims of the resurrection. Josephus had something to lose by telling the story, but he did (Testimonium Flavianum, book 18, chapter 3).
4. Confirmation by known facts surrounding the event.
5. Confirmation by other fields. Criminal verdicts can be confirmed or denied by scientific evidence such as DNA. Historical accounts can be supported or unsupported by archeology.
Objections independent of the Biblical Account
Both skeptics and Christians inherently understand that Christianity rises or falls on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As a result, this “event” has been one of the studied and debated in history. From a skeptic’s point of view, there are many ways to deny the Resurrection.
There are some who doubt the historicity of Jesus. Clearly doubting His existence would cast doubt on His resurrection. That opinion, however, is outside the scope of this discussion.
A widespread objection to the resurrection today is simply to reject the possibility without further discussion. This a priori assumption says that resurrections don’t occur today and don’t fit any known natural laws, so the Biblical accounts must be false. This objection became widespread with the period of European history misnamed as the Enlightenment, as though everything that came before it was dark. Keep in mind that this is no argument but merely a set of assumptions.
A corollary to the a priori rejection of the possibility of resurrection is that the stories of Jesus Christ rising from the dead are merely a Christian version of an earlier motif in Ancient Near East mythology. These skeptics argue that Jesus’ followers invented this “Christ myth” soon after His death.
Stories about god becoming man and god dying and rising again, such as in the myths of Osiris, were present but not common in mythology. Early cultures may have tied this to the “death of the earth” in the winter and its “rebirth” in the spring, the death of the seed into the ground and its rebirth into a plant, or the death and rebirth of the sun. These skeptics argue that early Christians simply applied these ideas to Jesus. A related argument is that since other god death-birth narratives preceded that of Christianity, the narrative about Jesus must have grown out of them.
Here is an example of a non-Christian god dying and coming back to life story. The best remaining account of this is in Plutarch (46-120 AD), “Isis and Osiris”.
Osiris and Seth were twin brothers and Egyptian gods. Osiris was the more powerful and popular of the two, and Seth bitterly resented it. So he had a coffin made in Osiris size and lured him into it. While Osiris lay in the stately coffin, Seth slammed it shut, sealed it with lead and threw it into the Nile River. Osiris drowned. It was recovered by a king in Lebanon, and Isis his wife tracked it down and brought it back to Egypt. Seth was furious so he stole the body, cut it into 13 pieces (each part representing a full moon), and scattered it around Egypt. Isis recovered the pieces except for the penis, which Seth had eaten. She made a new penis out of gold, put all the pieces together and walked around him singing a song. Osiris returned to life and became the god of the dead.
The story of Jesus, especially His death, burial and resurrection, is dramatically different than any of these stories, as typified by “Isis and Osiris”. What are the differences?
1. Other myths are of the “once upon a time” genre, while the story of Jesus occurs in Israel around 27-30 AD. His death was outside Jerusalem in the spring around 30 AD.
2. In the other stories, one god is killed by another, as when Osiris is killed by Seth. In the Bible, God is killed by man. Even more, He is killed by certain men (Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, and Herod) of unquestioned historicity. The idea of God the Creator being killed by His creatures was absurd. Weak and mortal man killing the omnipotent and immortal God? Preposterous!
3. Sexual imagery and precious things (diamonds, gold, etc.) are common in ancient myths, while none of these are present in the story of Christ.
4. The Osiris myth and many similar ones in history tie into and explain the natural order (full moon, etc.). The New Testament account of the life of Jesus does not.
5. Osiris did not rise. Even after his “resurrection”, he remained in the abode of the dead.
6. The “risen” Osiris was never witnessed by real men and women eating fish, talking, and no one ever touched the wounds in his body.
7. The result of the stories for followers was dramatically different. Egyptians who sought immortality had to meet three conditions
a. The body had to be mummified.
b. Nourishment had to be provided by the offering of daily bread and beer.
c. Magical spells were interred with him. His body did not actually rise, but elements of his personality (Ba and Ka) hovered over his body.
Do the differences in mythological accounts and the account of Jesus prove that He physically rose from the dead? Not in the minds of most people, I suspect. Do these differences suggest that we may be dealing with a real historical event? Definitely, because the sources noted above meet many commonly accepted criteria to determine the veracity of a historical event. Does that mean that these earlier myths are useless? Not at all, they were really divine glimpses, given by God’s common grace, of the truth and reality yet to come.
Another argument against the resurrection is that it was not bodily or physically but rather only spiritual. Skeptics would say that Jesus’ spirit rose while His body stayed in the grave. The Bible teaches that Jesus physically rose from the dead with a glorified but nonetheless real body.
Non-Christian Views on the Afterlife
I do not claim to be an expert on comparative religion and welcome input from those more skilled than I on this section. Nonetheless, I believe that comparing the views of non-Christians and Christians concerning life after death provides useful context for the discussion about Jesus’ resurrection.
A key theme is the Day of Judgment (Qiyamah), when the body and soul are again reunited and resurrected for consignment to the splendid gardens of paradise or torturous fires of hell. Between death and resurrection, individuals are subjected to a preliminary trial in the grave by the angels Munkar and Nakir and given a preview of their destiny in the Hereafter (Aakhirah).
Muslim men who are worthy live in mansions, eat delicious food and drink, and enjoy Houris, women specifically designed to provide sexual pleasure, forever. Faithful Muslim women also receive reward. Those who are Muslim but lack in good works may suffer in hell for a time but may eventually be removed by Allah. Nonbelievers such as Christians and Jews suffer eternal torment. Note that Muslims, at least at the time that the Koran was written, expected a physical, bodily resurrection.
Daniel 12:2 states “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Another Jewish document from around the time of Christ, Sib. Or. IV mentions “…God Himself will refashion the bones and ashes of humans and raise up mortals as they were before.” A third, 2 Baruch 50:2ff notes “For certainly the earth will then restore the dead. It will not change their form, but just as it received them, so it will restore them.”
From this small sampling of documents we can conclude that observant Jews, at least those living in the first century AD, expected a physical, bodily resurrection. The Jewish Prophets (Neviim) accounts include stories of people being raised from the dead (as noted in the Old Testament, 2 Kings 4:32-35, 2 Kings 13:20-21), but the expectation was that they died again. There are no accounts in these texts of people being raised in immortal bodies.
Ancient Greeks, and many Romans who adopted much of Greek culture, believed that the body is corrupt and without hope, but the soul is immortal. After death, the soul of the deceased would be transported by Charon, the ferry operator, across the River Styx into the underworld, Hades. The soul would be judged and sent to one of four places. Elysium was paradise for the good, Tartarus held eternal torment for blasphemers and evil ones, Asphodel Fields was for ordinary people, neither very good nor very bad, and the Fields of Punishment were for sinners whose wickedness did not attain to Tartarus. Thus Greeks, at least at the height of the classical period, believed in a non-physical life after death.
Hinduism includes a wide variance of belief, but the rough idea of the afterlife in Hinduism is that individuals are composed of three parts, the physical (or the gross) body, the subtle body and the Atman or the soul. When a person dies, it is only the first that perishes. The last two entities are reborn, i.e., acquire a new physical body depending upon the actions and the state of spiritual attainment of the individual. Between death and rebirth, rewards or punishments occur based on the deeds of the deceased.
A person with more good deeds than bad in his previous births takes rebirth in a handsome body and in a rich or a noble household, or even in a life-form that is superior to human beings. Conversely, a person with too many bad deeds in his record is born as an insect, a plant and so on. This cycle of birth and death continues indefinitely till the individual attains salvation. In the state of salvation, even the subtle body perishes and only the soul survives, in blissful union with God, the Universal Soul. The soul does not persist as an independent entity but merges with the Universal as a drop of water merges with the sea.
Historically an offshoot of Hinduism, Buddhism holds similar beliefs. Buddhists hope to enter into the state of Nirvana, but aside from reincarnation, there is no clear teaching on what occurs beyond the grave. There is no individual self and people do not have their own immaterial part (spirit or soul), but one’s desires and feelings may be reincarnated into another person.
The Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) tend to teach a bodily resurrection, while the Far Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism) advocate reincarnation. Most believe that mankind is dualistic, composed of both material (body) and immaterial (soul and/or spirit) parts.
The Claims of Jesus
The reason that Christians base the credibility of their faith on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is that Jesus based His own credibility on His resurrection. Jesus Christ claimed during His life that He would die, be buried, and rise again 3 days later (Matthew 16:21). This was revolutionary. No leader would ever make this claim because his followers would never believe it. Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand these sayings because they were completely inconsistent with a conquering, political Messiah. After His death, they never expected Jesus to physically rise again.
The Pre Resurrection Scene
The first requirement for resurrection is to be dead. Every eyewitness to the event acknowledged His death, including His enemies and His executioners. Please see On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ for evidence that Jesus was actually dead.
As is common in southern Palestine, the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea mentioned in Matthew 27:57-60 was a cave that was cut out of a large rock, not a hole dug into the ground. No corpse had ever been laid there before and it was close to the crucifixion site. Just as today responsible people make provisions for their death, in ancient Israel the rich commonly had tombs prepared for them while they still lived.
The Burial (John 19:38-42)
The Romans took Jesus’ body from the cross, and examined it again to be sure He was dead. These soldiers had seen death hundreds of times and had no illusions about whether Jesus was alive. Pilate gave the body to Joseph of Arimathea, a leader in the Sanhedrin, who, with Nicodemus and a team of servants, laid the body in Joseph’s unused tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses watched where they buried the body. It is unclear whether or not guards were there. Joseph and Nicodemus embalmed the body with 70-100 lbs of spices intended to preserve it. Jesus’ body was wrapped tightly from arms to ankles in foot-wide strips of linen. A large napkin was placed over His face. Rigor mortis, which begins two to four hours after death, was undoubtedly beginning.
The group rolled the stone over the entrance (Mark 15:46). Time was short since the Sabbath would soon begin.
If this group had stolen the body and hid it, pretending resurrection, every member would have had to keep the secret for their entire lives, regardless of the money they could have made by revealing the real burial site or the persecution they endured after the resurrection. They were not expecting a resurrection, no one would, and no one understood what Jesus was saying when He predicted His resurrection. There was no reason or benefit in stealing the body at this point.
Grave robbery was common in the Ancient Near East, even as late as the first century, so Joseph of Arimathea definitely would have made arrangements to seal his tomb. Tombs of the rich commonly had inscriptions on them warning grave robbers to stay away lest some curse should fall upon them. One such warning on a tomb in ancient Egypt read as follows:
“A crocodile be against him in the water; a snake be against him on land, he who would do anything against this tomb. Never did I do a thing against him. It is the god who will judge.”
Further, animals often got into tombs to devour the bodies lying there, especially if they had not yet been preserved with spices. Such desecration of the body was considered a terrible judgment from God (2 Kings 9:33-37). As a result the body was embalmed quickly and a hewn stone, probably weighing about two tons, was rolled in a small trench in front of the tomb.
The stone likely required up to 20 men to move according to a 4th century manuscript (Codex Bezae) (cf. Mark 16:3). It was hewn and circular, and was rolled in a stone trench with the lowest point directly in front of the tomb, making it even harder to roll away.
According to Roman practice for sealing an area, a cord was attached across the stone to both sides of the tomb and fixed with hard clay on either side. The Seal of Rome was stamped into the clay, witnessed by the Roman guards. The penalty to breaking the seal or for allowing the seal to be broken was death. The seal would only have been placed once the tomb was examined to ensure that the body was still there.
The religious leaders came to Pilate and asked him to provide guards lest the disciples steal the body and claim a resurrection. Pilate said “you have a guard” which could be an instruction to use their own Jewish temple guards or could be a command to take a Roman guard (Matthew 26:62-66). It was probably the latter because a Jewish temple guard would not be held responsible by Pilate for failing to keep the tomb sealed while a Roman guard would (Matthew 28:11-15).
A group of at least 4 but up to 30 Roman soldiers, commanded by a centurion, would have been assigned. Their job was to keep the body in the tomb and therefore they would have checked to ensure the body was still there before taking that responsibility.
One has to be impressed that Jesus’ enemies understood His predictions of His coming suffering better than Jesus’ disciples did. The Sanhedrin knew that Jesus was not talking about His soul or spirit rising again; they probably thought that His soul was going to Hell. At any rate there was no way that they could stop Jesus’ soul from escaping the tomb, no matter how many stones or guards they used. The Jewish political leaders were concerned about preventing the appearance of a bodily resurrection.
The Quiet Interlude
On Saturday the people in Jerusalem, Jews and Gentile proselytes and God-fearers, quietly observed the Sabbath at the conclusion of the Passover. Things were calm compared to the tumultuous week before. For their parts, the followers of Jesus were hiding in locked rooms all over the city, unsure of what to do next. They were defeated and demoralized.
The Post Resurrection Scene
The Sabbath was over at nightfall on Saturday but it would have unreasonable to try to finish the preparation of Jesus’ body on Saturday night. The tomb would be too dark to allow preparation to continue and traveling at night was dangerous, especially for women.
The Empty Tomb
When Mary Magdelene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome approached Jesus’ tomb at dawn on Sunday morning, they did so to complete His anointing for burial. They arrived and found the guards gone, the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Angels reported what had happened. Terrified, the women returned and told the disciples. Peter and John ran to the tomb to see for themselves. Eventually, according to the Gospel accounts and the writings of Paul, Jesus Himself appeared to His people.
The resurrected Jesus was witnessed by the women and some of the disciples roughly 40 hours after He was buried. The empty tomb was acknowledged by the Roman soldiers and the chief priests (Matthew 28:14). The claim that the tomb was empty was never disputed throughout the early church era. Had the tomb not been empty, the Jewish authorities could have destroyed nascent Christianity simply by producing the body of Jesus.
The grave clothes were not removed with the body, as grave robbers would have done. After all, most grave robbers would want the expensive spices, not the rotting corpse. Furthermore, the grave clothes were not strewn about the tomb, as grave robbers might have done, but wrapped and folded as though the body had simply withdrawn itself.
The Risen Christ appeared to many individuals and to over 500 witnesses in the 40 days between His resurrection and His ascension. Jesus resurrection was physical, the same body as before (scars), but now glorified. The disciples recognized Him by face and voice. He walked and talked, He ate and drank, and He could be touched.
Some Scriptural references about the appearances
Luke 24:39 – “See My hands and My feet, that it is I myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
Luke 24: 42-43 – “And they gave Him a piece of broiled fish; and He took it and ate it before them.”
Matthew 28:16-17 – “But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. And when they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some were doubtful.”
1 Corinthians 15:6 – “After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.”
The Transformed Lives of the Disciples
On Friday, the disciples abandoned Jesus. They never expected the Resurrection. On Saturday, they cowered in fear that they might be discovered and killed. On Sunday, they instantly became the most powerful evangelists the world has ever known. In their subsequent ministries, they had every reason and opportunity to deny Christ, but they never did. From 120 people in Acts 2 to over 2 billion people today, these men changed the world in a way no one had before or has since. The very existence of the church is evidence of the fact and power of Christ’s resurrection.
After Jesus rose again, the religious leaders undoubtedly did a full investigation. This would have involved harsh questioning of everyone involved in His burial. They found nothing, and concocted the story about the guards sleeping while the disciples stole the body (Matthew 28:11-15).
The Grave Robber Theory
For Jesus body to have been stolen, there must have been grave robbers. Some have argued that the disciples had a motive to pretend that Jesus rose again but really they had more reasons not to. They were afraid, defeated and demoralized. More than anything, these men wanted to get back to their former lives. After seeing the resurrected Christ but not knowing what else to do, Peter and John went back to fishing in Galilee (John 21:1-11).
Even if they had wanted to steal the body, could a rag tag band of fishermen, tax collectors, and others have overpowered heavily armed, highly trained Roman soldiers? The disciple with the most experience in killing was Judas, and he was dead. Peter was so incompetent with a sword that he couldn’t even strike down Malchus, the servant of the High Priest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Instead he swung wildly and cut off his ear (John 18:10).
Even if, by some subterfuge or military miracle, the disciples could have stolen the body and reburied it some other place, how would they have maintained the myth of the resurrection? How could they have transformed there fear and failure into power and boldness? When faced with certain death in the persecutions that were soon to come, why did not one person break and reveal the truth?
Some might argue that the Romans or Jewish authorities stole Jesus’ body. They would have had the ability but totally lack a motive. Why would they do it? News of the resurrection made Jerusalem less politically stable, not more. Those in power want nothing more than stability. Later when they saw Christianity developing and causing conflict, they could have crushed it, as they wanted to do, simply by producing Jesus’ body.
It is possible that ordinary grave robbers stole the body. They would have been better equipped than the disciples to overcome the Roman guard, but it still would have been nearly impossible. Once they got into the tomb, though wouldn’t they steal the costly spices and leave the body? What good would a rotting corpse do them?
The Hallucination Theory
Some of a psychological bent argue that Jesus’ followers individually and as a group hallucinated the appearances. This is unlikely. Expectation and visualization usually precede hallucination and none of Jesus’ followers expected Him to rise again. Further, consistent visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations among many people over time essentially impossible. Finally, the authorities could have produced the body to jar the believers back into reality or at least prevent others from believing their story.
The Wrong Tomb
Another possible though implausible objection to the physical resurrection is that everyone could have forgotten where they buried Jesus and went to the wrong tomb. Joseph of Arimathea bought the tomb and probably even commissioned it to be dug, so it is not likely that he forgot where it was. Mary, sad to be sure and probably not thinking as well as normal, is not likely to have gone to the wrong tomb twice. The other women who were with Mary would have helped her find the right tomb, and if they couldn’t do it surely Peter and John would have remembered which tomb Jesus was in. Further, did the Roman soldiers examine the wrong body, seal the wrong tomb, and then guard it?
After the disciples began telling about the Resurrection, it is hard to imagine that the Roman and Jewish authorities couldn’t find the right tomb to refute them. As noted above, they had ample motivation.
Mohammed died on 8 June 632 AD at the age of 61. He is still in his grave, and millions of Muslims visit it yearly. Abraham, the founder of Judaism, died about 1900 BC. He is still in his tomb, the Cave at Machpelah near Hebron. Moses, the giver of the Law, died on Mount Nebo in the Transjordan about 1300 BC. Buddha died “with an utter passing away in which nothing whatever remains behind”. Jesus, however, is different.
As we have seen, the historical evidence for the Resurrection is much stronger than that against it. By any legal reasonable legal or historical standard, the only way to disbelieve the Resurrection is to make an a priori assumption that it couldn’t or didn’t happen. The evidence is clear beyond reasonable doubt, Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
Other References – McDowell, J. “The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict”, 1999