The literal resurrection of Jesus Christ is Christianity. But did it really happen? Could it really happen? The fact is, if the resurrection was an actual moment in history, it literally changes everything! What then are the most common objections to the resurrection?
First, Jesus wasn’t really dead (swoon theory); he may have been arrested and crucified, but he somehow survived perhaps through a drug-induced drink (Mark 15:36). Although this objection remains a common one, it actually receives little scholarly attention because:
(a) the Romans were experts at crucifixion;
(b) soldiers themselves risked death if they failed to complete an execution;
(c) even if Jesus survived, his bloody and agonized body would not have caused followers to believe in a resurrection any more than it would have today.
Second, the dead body was stolen. Jesus was certainly no common criminal as he generated great interest and a significant following. The Jewish ruling council had a vested interest in making sure he was dead and buried in a guarded tomb. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all note that Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. The first eyewitnesses of the empty tomb did assume a stolen body. Soon after, as Jesus’ resurrection was being proclaimed, if the Romans or Jews possessed the stolen body, all they had to do was present it to stop any further talk of resurrection. They didn’t because it wasn’t.
Third, claims of resurrection were a mass hallucination of people who wanted to believe a resurrection had occurred. Actually, the Bible describes Jesus’ followers as having given him up for dead (Luke 24:1-11; John 20:24-26), and they were shocked by his resurrection, not expecting it. Hallucinations are not a group phenomenon, and the Bible records Jesus appearing at different times, to different people, and in different circumstances, thus making mass hallucination impossible.
Fourth, although the Bible accounts appear to differ in their details of the resurrection, a disciplined approach to Bible study yields their harmony. For example, Matthew describes one angel at the empty tomb while John describes two. However, only one angel speaks. Matthew could simply be highlighting the one who spoke, and of course, whenever you have two of something, you also have one. Likely both writers are describing the same scene with different emphases. Furthermore, critics would additionally object if all the accounts of the resurrection were exactly alike. Slightly differing accounts are actually evidence of non-collusion.
Even if there were (and we assert there are not) significant discrepancies within the New Testament, the unity of minimal facts demonstrates total agreement that:
(a) Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried;
(b) his followers cowered in fear assuming they were next to be arrested and killed;
(c) he was resurrected in bodily form;
(d) he appeared to his closest disciples, and to many others, who then charged fearlessly into the crowds only days later to declare his resurrection!
In fact, from the earliest moments of Christian worship, believers were proclaiming the deity of Christ and his sacrificial crucifixion and resurrection. No evidence exists showing an early form of Christianity that did not proclaim the resurrection as the central belief.
Historians note that it takes 30-60 years before legend can be confused with facts. As long as eyewitnesses are alive, legend gets muted. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, written barely 20 years after the resurrection, was far too early to have incorporated legend. Paul was an eyewitness himself, and initially a reluctant one, given that before his Christian transformation he was a zealous Jew who arrested and persecuted Christians. What motive would he have, or would all of the first witnesses have, to lie about their belief in the resurrection? History records that the most influential of these first witnesses all died for their beliefs, further underscoring the truth of their encounters with the Resurrected Christ.
The central tenets of Christianity initially seem so illogical:
(1) its central figure arrested and crucified as the lowest form of criminal;
(2) its first followers confused about his message, objected to him at times, denied knowing him, and hid in fear after his death;
(3) its first eyewitnesses to the resurrection were women (whom ancient near eastern culture considered unreliable in court testimony).
No one would invent such details in order to “start” a new religion.
The accounts in the New Testament reliably describe real human beings reacting as real human beings would. They wept at Jesus’ torture and mourned his humiliating death. His closest associates feared for their own imminent arrest and condemnation, and when confronted with an empty tomb, they assumed a stolen body. And yet, within days, these questioning, mournful, terrified people marched into the Jerusalem crowds, in full view of the Jewish and Roman leaders, boldly declaring Jesus’ resurrection! What happened to them to cause such a rapid transformation? The answer is the same experience that caused Peter to reverse his denial of knowing Jesus in order to proclaim him the Divine Savior, for Jesus’ own brother, James, to proclaim him the Lord’s Messiah, and for Paul to cease persecuting Christians in order to proclaim him God in flesh – Jesus truly did rise from the dead!
In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed the coming of the Messiah (Isaiah 7, 9, 52-53). Paul saw and experienced the fullness of this Resurrected Christ that he wrote about and that we confidently proclaim today:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also…Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
And by the way, the truth of Paul’s words does indeed change everything.
If the resurrection is truly central to Christianity, why is it being addressed in article #8 in our 12-part series? Why not first?
Our series began by demonstrating the existence of God via
- science: cosmology (something cannot come from nothing), our exquisitely fine-tuned universe, the extreme complexity of biology;
- philosophy: objective morality and objective beauty indicate a standard outside of ourselves;
- personal experience: human consciousness exists beyond physical existence;
- reliability of the Bible: its trustworthiness and truthfulness.
With this foundation of evidence and information, we may now better assess the reasons to believe that the resurrection actually occurred.
(To explore articles 1-7, please see this page.)