3. Convincing Evidence of Christ's Bodily Resurrection

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (30:58)

Giovanni Bellini, Resurrection of Christ (1475-79)
Giovanni Bellini (Venetian painter, c. 1430-1516) "Resurrection of Christ" (1475-79), Oil on panel, 148 x 128 cm, Staatliche Museen, Berlin. Larger image.

It doesn't surprise me that Christians need to convince agnostics and atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But what astounds me is that by far the most learned and agile opponents of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ are liberal Christian scholars. For example, here is the fairly accurate book description for The Resurrection of Jesus by Gerd Luedemann:

"What actually happened at the resurrection of Jesus? Using historical criticism and depth psychology, Luedemann reviews the accounts of witnesses, consults Pauline texts, and investigates Easter events, concluding that though the quickening of Christ cannot be believed in a 'literal' and scientific sense, we can still be Christians."

Huh?

People Just Don't Come Back to Life

The real issue is one of assumptions and worldview. Scholarly opponents of a literal, bodily resurrection assume a Western scientific worldview. If something cannot be explained or proved by science, then it is unscientific and false. There is no room whatsoever in this worldview for a God who intervenes in history, as does the God of the Old and New Testaments. There is only room for scientifically explained cause and effect within a closed system that excludes miracles. This is a determined unbelief in anything outside of a carefully defined worldview.

Liberal Christian scholars may assume that their sophisticated unbelief in the resurrection from the dead is new. It is not. As long as men and women have been alive on the earth they have experienced death and reflected upon it. They know that while people sometimes live a long time, they don't come back to life once dead.

The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who heard Paul preach on Jesus' resurrection made fun of him (Acts 17:18, 32). Their worldview included the immortality of the soul, but not physical resurrection of the dead.

But for many people who are struggling with their own mortality, the news that Jesus overcame death and was raised to life gives them hope. Resurrection is actually "Good News." In fact, the resurrection of Jesus is the core of the good news preached by the early church.

Historically Accessible

Liberal Christian scholars have retreated into a fuzzy but intellectually respectable agnosticism about what can be known from history. For example, Gerd Lüdemann, whose book was described above says:

"We can no longer understand the resurrection of Jesus in a literal sense, i.e. in a bloody way ... for historically speaking we do not know the slightest thing about the tomb (was it empty? was it an individual tomb at all?) and about the fate of Jesus' corpse: did it decay? At any rate I regard this conclusion as unavoidable."1

With liberal Christian scholars, in addition to their intellectual pride, the primary hurdle to overcome is philosophical. To them, Jesus' resurrection can't be examined with the normal tools of historical inquiry because it is:

  • Unrepeatable. It is a one-of-a-kind event that can't be studied
  • Incomparable. We have no analogies to which to compare it.
  • Lacks credible evidence. This isn't actually true, but these scholars often explain away or neglect the strong evidence that we do have.

A Narrow View of Historicity

N.T. Wright, who strongly defends the resurrection, sees the idea of history used in five different ways in our modern culture:

  1. History as an event. Something that happened, whether we can prove it or not.
  2. History as significant event. An historic event is one which carries momentous consequences.
  3. History as a provable event. X may have happened, but since we can't prove it, therefore it isn't really historical.
  4. History as writing about events in the past. It is historical in the sense that it was written about -- or talked about, as in oral history.
  5. History as what modern historians can say about a topic, that which can be demonstrated and written within the post-Enlightenment world view. This is what liberal scholars mean when they reject "the historical Jesus."2

I would argue that the resurrection is historical in senses 1, 2, 3, and 4. It cannot, however, be demonstrated and written about within the closed Western worldview that a priori rejects miracles. It is on these narrow grounds that liberal scholars claim not to know whether the resurrection took place or not. Mind you, it is not the common man that splits these historical hairs, but rather the liberal scholar who uses them as a dodge behind which to make unbelief seem respectable.

In fact, actual historians examine events that happened two or three millennia ago all the time. There are accepted ways to determine historical probabilities. The problem with the resurrection is not that it can't be demonstrated historically, but that it can't be explained in naturalistic terms. The explanation requires a recognition that God has intervened in history.

Alternate Theories of the Resurrection

Before we look at the strong historical proofs for the resurrection, let's consider the theories that one must adopt if he doesn't believe in the Biblical account that God raised Jesus from the dead bodily. I've looked hard to find and categorize the alternate theories floating around, which attempt to explain the disciples' belief in the resurrection. They come down to five theories, each with variations:

  1. Theft theory
  2. Swoon theory
  3. Wrong tomb theory
  4. Vision Theory
  5. Spiritual Metaphor Theory

Let's briefly examine these one by one. After we do so, we'll examine in detail the five strong reasons why Jesus' bodily resurrection from the grave is the only adequate way to explain the data.

Q1. What do you think motivates liberal Christian scholars to explain away the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ? Why would they claim that it is unhistorical more than some other event in the first century?
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1. Theft Theory

The theft theory is probably the first explanation given by Jesus' enemies and is still propounded by opponents of the resurrection today. When the soldiers reported to the chief priests that the stone had been rolled away, they were given "a large sum of money" to tell the story that "His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep" (Matthew 28:11-15)

The problems with this explanation are three-fold: (1) The disciples had no motive to steal the body. (2) Roman soldiers who fall asleep on watch are subject to death. (3) The disciples wouldn't have died for a faith they knew not to be true.

Some people have proposed that Jesus' enemies stole the body. But they had no motive either. They wanted Jesus well buried. If they had stolen the body, when the apostles began preaching the resurrection in Jerusalem, they could have ended Christianity's 15 minutes of fame by merely producing the body. They didn't. Why? Because they didn't have Jesus' body.

Q2. On the theft theory, what motive might the disciples have to take Jesus' body? What motive might the Romans have? The Jews? Joseph of Arimathea?
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2. Swoon Theory

According to the swoon theory, originally propounded by a German scholar Paulus in 1828, Jesus didn't really die, but weakened by loss of blood and his wounds, he slipped into a coma and was presumed dead. Later, in the cool of the tomb, he revives and leaves the tomb.

The problems in this theory are the spear thrust to his side which apparently pierced his pericardium and released blood and water, signifying death. If Jesus had survived, the cool of the tomb would be more likely to kill than revive him. Moreover, in his weakened condition he would have to unwrap himself from the burial wrappings -- or be helped by friends. But where's the motive?

A twist on this theory was propounded Hugh J. Schonfield (1901-1988), a British Biblical scholar, in his novel The Passover Plot (1965), later made into a movie (1976). The plot was that, with Jesus' collusion, Joseph of Arimathea was to drug him to make him unconscious and get him off the cross alive. This theory assumes that Jesus lived out the remainder of his days in hiding. But it isn't psychologically sound, as we'll see shortly.

3. Wrong Tomb Theory

The wrong tomb theory was developed by Kirsopp Lake (1872-1946), a noted English Biblical scholar and Harvard professor who wrote Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1907). In it he suggests that the women mistook the location of the actual tomb where Jesus' body lay. Instead, a young man, guessing their errand, points them in the right direction saying, "He is not here, see the place where they laid him" (misquoting Mark 16:6), but the women misunderstand, are frightened, and flee.3 Later they mistakenly think the young man was announcing the resurrection.4

The problem, of course, is that Mary Magdalene had been to that tomb two days prior on Friday night (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47). In addition, it bore the seal of Rome and there was a guard of Roman soldiers camped in front of it. They couldn't have missed it. If this theory were true, all the Jewish authorities would have needed to do to refute claims of the resurrection would be to produce Jesus' body. They didn't.

4. Vision Theory

The vision theory was the fall-back position of one of the most influential opponents of the bodily resurrection in the twentieth century, German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). He sought to "demythologize" the gospel to make it believable to modern man. He wrote in 1941 of "the incredibility of a mythical event like the resuscitation of a corpse -- for that is what resurrection means."5 Since a bodily resurrection was out of the question for Bultmann, he theorized that the disciples experienced subjective visions that convinced them that Jesus had risen from the dead. He wrote,

"The historian can perhaps to some extent account for that faith [in the resurrection] from the personal intimacy which the disciples had enjoyed with Jesus during his earthly life and so reduce the resurrection appearances to a series of subjective visions."6

Later he seems to have retreated some from this position and declared that how the disciples' faith arose was "not of basic importance."7 Johannes Weiss calls this "a profound inner conviction which through an overwhelming final experience emerges at last into certainty and reality."8

In other words, the disciples eventually come to believe that Jesus was resurrected because no other explanation of his death would do. It doesn't explain the exploding growth of the Jerusalem church based on the preaching of the resurrection. To refute this, all Jesus' enemies would have to do would be to produce the body. Sometimes called the Personality Influence Theory or the Hallucination Theory,9 this is a desperate theory without support. It is inconsistent with the disciples' mental state and doesn't explain Jesus' appearance to 500 persons at once.

I'm almost embarrassed to mention Michael Perry's theory that Jesus communicated to his disciples by telepathy that he had truly conquered the powers of death.10 It is novel, let us say, though it has no basis in the facts of the New Testament.

5. Spiritual Metaphor Theory

The spiritual metaphor theory is the final alternate theory of the resurrection, fairly common in our time among liberal pastors and theologians. It asserts that the disciples, especially Paul, didn't really believe in a bodily resurrection, but held a more spiritual view. Early Christians used terms such as dying and rising as a kind of metaphor to communicate their faith. When they said, "Jesus was raised from the dead," so this view goes, they meant something like, "He is alive in a spiritual, non-bodily sense, and we give him our allegiance as our lord."11 Only later did the church begin to take such expressions literally, according to this theory, and then penned the gospel accounts as a kind of secondary reinforcement of this belief. This fuzzy-headed thinking doesn't understand Paul well, ignores the early date of the gospels, and bypasses the gospel accounts of the resurrection.12

In a nutshell, these are the five alternate theories that are supposedly more possible or historical than the gospel account itself. Instead, none of these alternate theories deals adequately with the historical material we have in front of us -- the New Testament. Instead they make unspoken assumptions and don't really add up.

Five Important Facts of Easter Morning

What does add up to a credible story, however, is the evidence of the New Testament. In Lesson 2 we examined various elements of the gospel accounts. Here let's examine the cumulative power of the account that makes it by far the most plausible explanation of what happened on Easter morning. These arguments can be summed up in five points.

  1. The Empty Tomb
  2. The Undisturbed Grave Clothes
  3. The Disciples' Psychological State
  4. The Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus
  5. The Growth of Christianity

1. The Empty Tomb

The first important fact of Easter morning is that tomb is empty. This in and of itself didn't create faith in the resurrection. To Mary Magdalene it was a sign of grave robbers.

But any explanation of the resurrection must deal with the fact that Jesus' tomb was empty. In other words, there must be some explanation of what happened to his body. The theft, swoon, and wrong tomb theories above have rather lame explanations, though they deal with the issue. But the vision and spiritual metaphor theories essentially ignore the fact that Jesus body isn't in the tomb. Any explanation of what happened Easter morning must deal with the fact that the tomb was empty.

2. The Undisturbed Grave Clothes

The second important fact of Easter morning is that two of the gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus' grave clothes lay essentially undisturbed on the stone shelf within the tomb. None of the alternate theories above even attempt an explanation.

If the grave clothes were missing or even thrown on the floor it could have meant that Jesus' body had been stolen or even revived and left. But for them to be still folded as they had been when they had been wrapped round and round Jesus' body is very strange. It indicates that his body just slipped out of them without disturbing them. The best explanation is that Jesus' body was raised from the dead miraculously by God. Any explanation of what happened on Easter morning must explain the position of the grave clothes.

3. The Disciples' Psychological State

The third important fact of Easter morning is the disciples' psychological state, which is mentioned in all four gospels. They were in hiding, discouraged, and disheartened. They did not at first believe the women's report of Jesus' resurrection. Only after Jesus appeared to them in person did they believe.

This indicates several things:

  • That they weren't inclined to concoct a story of Jesus' resurrection.
  • They weren't inclined to mistake Jesus' missing body for resurrection.
  • They didn't expect any resurrection, even though Jesus had predicted it on at least three occasions. Jesus' crucifixion for them was an indication that their Messiah had been discredited.
  • They weren't inclined to steal Jesus' body.

But let's suppose for a moment that they were part of a conspiracy to steal Jesus' body and claim that he had been raised from the dead. Of the original 12 disciples, ten were martyred for their faith. Only John seemed to have died of natural causes. As Origin put it, men do not risk their lives and suffer martyrdom for a lie.

To assume that the disciples were part of a conspiracy doesn't jive with a careful assessment of their psychological state. To suppose that the disciples of Jesus, the man of truth, would perpetrate a fraud is preposterous. When you consider the disciples' psychological state following Jesus' crucifixion, only the fact of the resurrection can explain the change that took place in them.

Q3. How does the disciples' psychological state after the crucifixion provide excellent support for belief in the resurrection?
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4. The Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus

The fourth important fact of Easter morning involves Jesus' appearances to several individuals and to ten of the disciples at the same time -- all on the Sunday of the resurrection. Let me list these appearances:

  • Mary Magdalene (John 20:14-17; Matthew 28:9-10; Mark 16:9)
  • "The other Mary" (Matthew 28:9-10)
  • Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5)
  • Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus on Sunday afternoon (Luke 24:13-35; Mark 16:12)
  • Disciples in Jerusalem on Sunday evening (Luke 24:36-43; Acts 1:4; John 20:19-23; Mark 16:14; 1 Corinthians 15:5)

Jesus also appeared to the disciples and others over a period of 40 days (Acts 1:3; 13:30-31).

  • Thomas and the other disciples, a week later (John 20:24-29)
  • Disciples in Galilee (Matthew 28:17)
  • Disciples (Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two others) while fishing on the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-23)
  • 500 people at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6)
  • James, Jesus' brother, who later became the leader of the Jerusalem congregation (1 Corinthians 15:7)14
  • Disciples at the ascension (Matthew 28:51-52)
  • Paul (1 Corinthians 15:8), much later

The gospel writers and Paul are crystal clear that the risen Christ appeared to different individuals and groups of people at different times over a period of about 40 days. This pretty well shoots down the vision theory -- all the alternate resurrection theories in fact. Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that "most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep," in other words, he is claiming that eyewitnesses were living then -- approximately 53-55 AD15 -- to whom Jesus had actually appeared. This was not some kind of secretive, hidden phenomenon, but was openly known and talked about in the early church.

Detractors claim there were no credible eyewitnesses. That is patently false; they are merely choosing to disbelieve any of the New Testament accounts.

5. The Spread of Christianity

The final important fact of the Easter account really took place after Easter Sunday in the rapid growth of the Church. Fifty days after the Passover on which Jesus was crucified was the feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem. On that day the Holy Spirit fell upon 120 believers who were gathered praying. "The rest is history," as they say. The Holy Spirit prompted the apostles to preach that Jesus had been raised from the dead -- in the very city where he had been crucified and buried.

  • "But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him." (Acts 2:24)
  • "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact." (Acts 2:32)
  • "You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this." (Acts 3:15)
  • "... Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead..." (Acts 4:10)
  • "With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all." (Acts 4:33)
  • "The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead -- whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree." (Acts 5:30)

The church grew to 3,000 on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41), then to 5,000 men (Acts 4:4), one fifth the population of Jerusalem, then the New Testament records that many among the priests of the city believed (Acts 6:7). When the Jews began heavy persecution against the Christian church, they preached the resurrection wherever they went.

  • Peter in Caesarea: "They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen." (Acts 10:39-40)
  • Paul in Pisidian Antioch: "They took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead...." (Acts 13:29-30)
  • Paul in Thessalonica: "... Explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead." (Acts 17:3)
  • Paul in Athens: "[God] has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:31)
  • Paul before King Agrippa and Governor Festus: "... That the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead...." (Acts 26:23)

What galvanized a demoralized band of followers into fearless proclaimers of the resurrection? Within a generation or two, Christianity had spread to the farthest reaches of the Roman empire. By the early fourth century Christianity had become the dominant religion -- proclaiming the resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ!

The easiest way to stop the spread of Christianity in Jerusalem would have been to produce Jesus' body. But Jesus' enemies were not able to convince the populace of Jerusalem that the resurrection was a fake. Too many people had seen Jesus after his resurrection. There were too many witnesses to the resurrection to shut down this new faith. As a result, Christianity mushroomed -- first in Jerusalem, then Judea, Samaria, and finally to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Arguments by Silence

When you consider a theory that gospel accounts of the resurrection were concocted after the fact to prove something that didn't happen, observe several interesting facts about the accounts.

  1. Lack of Biblical quotations. The rest of the gospels make constant reference to Old Testament scriptures that Christ fulfilled. Yes, Christ explains how his death and resurrection were foretold in Scripture (Luke 24:25-27, 46). The story is told plainly without embellishment.
  2. Lack of Christ appearing first to male disciples. What we have is the testimony of Mary Magdalene, a woman, whose testimony wouldn't have much weight from a Jewish legal point of view. Yes, the scripture records later appearances to specific male disciples, but the detailed accounts concern women.
  3. Lack of emphasis on personal hope. The future resurrection hope of the Christian isn't mentioned in these accounts. Rather, the emphasis seems to be: Jesus is risen, now you have work ahead of you!
  4. Lack of a portrait of Jesus. Jesus is not depicted in these accounts as a heavenly being, radiant and shining. Rather he has a human body that is "unusual."13

If, as some liberal Christian scholars claim, the accounts of the resurrection were concocted late by disciples creating a physical resurrection to support Christian faith, that the stories would pull out all the stops to prove the point. Instead, the accounts are told plainly as they occurred.

The Sufficiency of the Evidence

Resurrection and Easter Faith, by Ralph F. Wilson
Now all the lessons are available together in e-book and printed book formats.

Taken individually, the various details of Jesus' resurrection would be powerful. But taking all the evidence together, the case for the resurrection is compelling. No alternate theory of the resurrection explains the remarkable facts of:

  • The empty tomb,
  • The undisturbed grave clothes,
  • The disciples' psychological state,
  • The post-resurrection appearances of Christ, and
  • The spread of Christianity.

What seems to some as too good to be true indeed is true. We all face death, but Christ's resurrection is the Good News that we Christians can proclaim to our world. Death is not the end. As he was raised, so we will be also!

Q4. Which of the various proofs for the resurrection seems the most compelling to you? Why? If you had a friend who wasn't sure about the resurrection, could you explain why you're sure that Jesus was raised from the dead?
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Prayer

Father, thank you for the strong assurances you have given us that Christ has been raised indeed! Strengthen your Church in this faith as well, that around the world we might proclaim the resurrection of Christ our Lord without embarrassment or hesitation. Teach us to tell the Good News! In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"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 five hundred of the brothers 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, as to one abnormally born." (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

References

  1. Gerd Luedemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (translated by John Bowden; Fortress Press, 1994), p. 180. Lüdemann continues, "To the question: 'Can we still be Christians?' the answer has to be a confident 'Yes'.... The man Jesus is the objective power which is the enduring basis of the experiences of a Christian.... We must stop at this historical Jesus, but we may believe that he is also with us as one who is alive now." (pp. 182, 183)
  2. Wright, Resurrection, pp. 12-13.
  3. Kirsopp Lake, The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1907), pp. 250-253, quoted by McDowell, Evidence, pp. 265-266.
  4. As outlined by Ladd, Resurrection, p. 136.
  5. Rudolf Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth (SPCK, 1953), pp. 38-42, cited by Paul Beasley-Murray, The Message of the Resurrection (Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), p. 242.
  6. Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth, p. 42, cited by Ladd, Resurrection, pp. 136-137.
  7. "How the Easter faith arose in individual disciples has been obscured in the tradition by legend and is not of basic importance." Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (New York: Scribners Sons, 1951), I. p. 45), cited by Ladd, p. 137.
  8. Johannes Weiss, Earliest Christianity (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959), I, p. 30, cited by Ladd (p. 137).
  9. Thoroughly refuted by McDowell, Evidences, pp. 257-265.
  10. Outlined by Ladd, p. 139, citing Michael Perry, The Easter Enigma (London: Faber & Faber, 1959).
  11. Marcus J. Borg, in Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus (London: SPCK, 1999), chapter 8, cited in Wright, Resurrection, p. 718. This general approach is discussed by Wright, Resurrection, pp. 7, 701-706.
  12. Of course, the New Testament does use dying and rising as analogies of the spiritual life (Romans 6:4-10; Colossians 2:12-13; 3:1; Ephesians 2:5-6; etc.). But that doesn't prove that they didn't really believe in a literal, bodily resurrection. The actual resurrection provides the basis and vocabulary for the analogy.
  13. These strange silences in the Biblical accounts are explored by Wright, Resurrection, pp. 599-608.
  14. Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 731.
  15. 1 Corinthians is dated in the Spring 53 to 55 AD (Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 15).

Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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