Christianity is unique among world religions in that it stands or falls on the incredible claim that its founder physically arose from death. This resurrection was not some sort of “spiritual” thing in the memories of his followers, nor was it a reincarnation in someone else, but it was a “touch and feel – its for real” kind of body. The resurrection is considered as the proof to all of the claims of Jesus Christ: he is God’s only Son; he is the only way to heaven; he is the embodiment of all truth; he is the only source of real life. He is still alive today. Those who believe in him can have a personal relationship with him now through a spiritual experience and have the hope of a resurrection themselves when he comes back to this world some day in the future.
All of this is either utter foolishness, or it is wonderfully true. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then Christians ought to be pitied as fools or scorned as liars. But if the resurrection can be shown to be valid, then the exclusive claims of Christ have God’s supernatural stamp of approval. All other paths to God would have to be false.
The Bible’s record of the events surrounding the resurrection can be summarized as follows:
1. Jesus predicted that the Jewish leaders would reject his claim to be Messiah and would have him put to death.
2. He said that this death would have theological significance. It was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies stating that the Messiah would die as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind.
3. He said that, as proof of the efficacy and uniqueness of this sacrifice, God would raise him on the third day after his death.
4. Jesus was arrested, tried, and falsely convicted of capital offenses before both Jewish and Roman authorities.
5. His followers deserted him in fear for their own lives.
6. Jesus was beaten, mocked, whipped, and then nailed to a cross, the Roman government’s method of executing common criminals.
7. Jesus died. To make sure of this, a spear was thrust into his side.
8. One of his followers on the Jewish council received permission to bury Jesus’ body.
9. His body was hastily prepared for burial and laid in the council member’s own tomb. The entrance was blocked by a large stone.
10. Fearing foul play, the Jewish leaders asked for a guard to make the tomb secure. It was sealed and the guard was posted.
11. Early Sunday morning, the body of Jesus was missing.
12. Jesus’ disciples claimed that he was risen, and that they had both seen and talked with him.
13. Jewish authorities did not dispute that the tomb was empty; they insisted that the disciples had crept past the sleeping guards and had stolen the body.
14. The fact that Jesus’ body was missing was not denied by friend or foe alike.
Where was the body? That is the question. Many people have presented theories trying to explain the disappearance on natural grounds. Let’s examine their merit in Part 2!
This was the original explanation for the disappearance of Jesus’ body. It requires the disillusioned and fearful disciples steal the body from the guards and then conspire to spread the story about a false resurrection.
This explanation presents us with some major weaknesses. First, the disciples were not able to steal the body from armed guards. Psychologically, they were afraid, demoralized, and defeated, just hours before the alleged heist. Could they have all banded together to make a raid upon the tomb? Furthermore, these were armed guards, under strict military discipline. The penalty for sleeping on watch, as well as losing their charge, was execution. Instead, they were released. The guards’ existence is actually a testimony that something incredible did take place that Sunday morning.
But, for the sake of argument, suppose the disciples did somehow manage to steal the body. Why would they want to? Their hopes that Jesus would be the Messiah were dashed at his arrest. He was dead and gone. They did not believe nor even hope for a resurrection. In addition to gathering to steal the body, they would also have to have a reason for doing so. This reason could only be to conspire to perpetrate a lie – that their failure of a Messiah was really the savior of the world whom God had raised to life.
The problems with this conspiracy theory are numerous. First, it was blasphemous. It is inconceivable that these eleven men who followed a man who so soundly condemned lying would enter into such a hypocritical conspiracy. Secondly, all the remaining disciples would have to agree to the conspiracy in just a few hours and remain true to it for the rest of their lives. If any one of them recanted, it would destroy the validity of the whole movement. Yet, every one of the disciples endured persecution, torture, and (with the exception of one) violent death for this “story.” Not one changed his mind. Finally, hundreds of other people claimed to have seen the risen Christ. They, too, endured the same treatment without changing their testimonies.
Having admitted the impossibility of the disciples’ theft of the body, some people have theorized that the Jews took it. This is even more improbable. First, it contradicts any written record – not even the enemies of the Christians tried to refute the resurrection in this manner. Second, the written record makes it clear that the Jews were content to leave the body alone under guard. Furthermore, if they had taken the body, they would merely have to produce a corpse for the world to see in order to put down the reports of Christ’s resurrection. They could have produced any body, but the didn’t.
Well if no one took the body, it must have been because there was no body. This is a popular modern theory. Jesus did not really die on the cross. He only fainted and the ignorant soldiers sent to execute him took him down too soon. In the coolness of the tomb, Jesus came to, pushed aside the stone, slipped past the guards, and showed himself alive to his disciples.This theory was effectively refuted by an article in the March 1, 1986 issue of the “Journal of the American Medical Association.” The author analyzed the wounds to Jesus’ body, (head, hands, feet, back, and side) and concluded that the man was dead on the cross. The spear thrust into his side punctured both his heart and a lung. Therefore, it is not even necessary to address the absurd idea that a man so injured could revive, push aside a heavy stone, and have his disciples conclude that he was the victorious conqueror of death!
Well then it wasn’t really Jesus who died. A substitute was somehow switched in his place. The unfortunate man sacrificed himself for the one who claimed to be God’s sacrifice for the sins of the world. This unlikely scenario presupposes a diabolical plot on the part of Jesus, his disciples, a few Roman soldiers in the right places, not to mention a willing fool. It fails at the point of recognition: Jesus was well known; an imposter would be recognized immediately. And for what purpose would anyone volunteer to die such a horrible death on a cross?
Other critics, after rejecting the swoon, the switch, and the snitch, have decided that, yes, Jesus did die and he was buried. However, when the women came on Sunday morning to complete the burial procedures begun on Friday, they went to the wrong tomb! Hysterically, they concluded that Jesus was risen and reported this incredible story to the disciples. They, too, ran to the wrong tomb and, instead of coming to a more rational conclusion, they gullibly believed the women’s report.Not only does this theory present all of Jesus disciples as simpletons, it falls apart for the same reason the Jews did not steal the body: all they had to do was go to the original tomb and produce the body!
We have not addressed the issue of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. The Bible records numerous such occurrences, most often the presence of two or more witnesses (and by as many as five hundred people at one time). These appearances are explained away as either hoaxes or hallucinations.
The hoax theory is not built up by these appearances. It actually grows weaker. The more conspirators there are in a plot, the greater the likelihood that one or more of them will “blow the whistle,” especially under threat of bodily harm. Instead, all of the witnesses to Christ’s resurrection went to their deaths without denying what they saw and, in many cases, touched.
The mass hallucination theory is even a less plausible explanation. Hallucinations come from within the mind. That so many groups of people saw the same things on so many different occasions and settings makes this theory impossible to believe. Furthermore, the apostles and other witnesses were clear in their description of Christ’s physical body: he ate food; he touched them. His resurrection body was not “spiritual” in the sense of being vaporous, ghost-like, or just in the memory of a beloved follower.
SOMETHING ON MY MIND
Then there is the final argument against the empty grave: Jesus was never real in the first place. His life, teachings, death, and resurrection were all stories embellished over the years by the Church. There may have been a man who taught wonderful things like brotherly love, but his teachings and exploits grew over the years to the realm of the incredible.
Though this position remains popular in the modern mind (and even to some so-called theologians), archeological and historical evidence have made the gradual elaboration theory impossible. Fragments of the Gospels have been found from the mid-first century AD, proving that if elaboration took place, it had to occur during the first two to three decades following Christ’s death.
But if elaboration took place, the original witnesses of Jesus’ life were still around to contradict the embellishments. Furthermore, there are contemporary accounts of the teaching of the early Church (i.e., the expulsion of Jews from Rome around 49 AD due to the instigation of one “Chrestus”). Even the enemies of Christianity did not dispute the life and teachings of Jesus. None of the events of his life escaped the notice of even casual observers because, as the apostle Paul put it, “It was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).
By a process of elimination, we have seen that natural explanations for the resurrection of Jesus are not very believable. This leaves us with the equally incredible explanation as recorded in the Bible. Jesus died, was buried, and on the third day rose to life due to the supernatural intervention of God. Admittedly, this explanation is impossible to accept if a person has a presuppositional bias against the possibility of there being a God, or that God could act in a supernatural manner. But that is where this study leaves us. If one can accept the notion of a God who would be personally involved in his creation, then the faith required to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not only plausible, it is rational.
If, however, one adamantly chooses not to believe in such a God, then the resurrection simply cannot be explained satisfactorily. One can ignore it, but it is no less real.
Christianity is not intended to be just a set of beliefs to which we give mental assent. This study is meant to show that there are good, valid, and rational reasons for our faith. But real Christian belief goes beyond the cerebral; it connects with us with the spiritual realm. And this fact is yet another proof of the resurrection of Jesus Christ: there is a spiritual experience for believers called, “the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of Truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:15-18).
“If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).“
I tell you the truth: it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:6-7).
In his writings, the apostle Paul described this ongoing experience with God as being “filled with the Holy Spirit,” a kind of “down payment” of what the future realm of God will be like.
The Holy Spirit’s presence and power were the central driving forces in the early church. Many people do not realize that the church did not begin right after the resurrection. Jesus told his disciples to do nothing until they had received this gift of the Holy Spirit. Not knowing what to expect, they waited some fifty days until the Jewish Feast of Pentecost occurred. After a powerful and unmistakable experience, the church was born. They immediately proclaimed this message: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of you sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
That is still the message.