Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
Someone recently told me he needed scientific proof before he could believe that Jesus rose from the dead. The problem is, it’s impossible to study past events under laboratory conditions!
Thankfully there are ways to probe the past: our legal system depends on it. No one demands scientific proof when it comes to a court case (though of course, we do use science to better understand some of the evidence). Instead, a jury uses the evidence to see which explanation (guilty or innocent) fits.
And we can do something similar with the resurrection. Listed below you’ll find seven common attempts to explain the first Easter. Let’s see which one best fits the evidence.
- Jesus rose from death.
- Jesus wasn’t dead, just unconscious, and exited the tomb when he recovered.
- Jesus’ disciples visited the wrong tomb.
- Jesus’ body was stolen by graverobbers.
- Jesus’ body was stolen by the Romans
- Jesus’ body was stolen by the disciples so they could claim Jesus had risen.
- Jesus’ disciples hallucinated the whole thing.
Let’s start by making sure Jesus was dead. In the hours leading up to his death, Jesus suffered an appalling beating leaving him significantly weakened. He was then crucified in classic Roman fashion (if you can stomach it, watch the Passion of the Christ to understand what he went through!) Wanting him dead before the Sabbath began at dusk, the Roman soldiers, who presumably knew a thing or two about killing, thrust a spear through his chest. From the description of the fluids flowing from the wound, it’s likely this perforated his lung, pericardium and heart. No reasonable doctor would suggest he was alive at this point.
But maybe his disciples went to the wrong tomb? The problem here is that the tomb wasn’t in an anonymous mass graveyard but a private burial cave in a garden belonging to a prominent citizen (Joseph of Arimathea). That’s a relatively easy thing to locate, which is why the Bible’s description of the reaction of Jesus’ followers to finding the tomb empty gives no hint that the location was in doubt.
So what about grave robbers? Let’s ignore the Romans guarding the tomb and the heavy stone sealing it and ask why anyone would want to rob the tomb? Jesus was known for his life of poverty, the only valuables in his tomb were the burial clothes – which his followers found left in the empty tomb. Why leave them and steal his body?
Maybe the Romans (or the Jewish authorities) took the body instead? They certainly had the opportunity, and perhaps a motive: to crush the Christian movement. But this begs an even bigger question: how much more damaging would it have been to produce the corpse when the disciples were running around Jerusalem telling people Jesus was alive?
So perhaps the disciples stole the body? For any resurrection conspiracy to work, you’d certainly have to get rid of Jesus’ body. The problem here is threefold.
- The gospels are pretty clear that the disciples weren’t expecting Jesus to rise from the dead.
- If it was a conspiracy, making a group of women your main eye-witnesses makes no sense at all: women’s testimony had no weight in Jewish law.
- If the conspirators spent the rest of their lives lying about Jesus rising from the dead, it’s astonishing that no one ever told the truth. Charles Colson – one of the Watergate conspirators – said:
I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.
Having ruled out most of the alternatives, what evidence is there that Jesus rose from death? Two strands of evidence are particularly helpful.
First, we have multiple eye-witness accounts of people seeing the risen Jesus. St Paul tells us Jesus appeared to Peter, “and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living” (1Corinthians 15:5-6). “Still living” is an invitation for doubters to go and meet the 500 eye-witnesses who saw the risen Jesus and ask them about it!
Now you might respond by saying they were hallucinating? But the sightings of Jesus don’t fit any pattern of mass hallucination that modern psychology is aware of. There was no expectation that Jesus would rise, there’s no use of narcotics, and Jesus was seen in different places by different groups of people, who interacted with him, touched him and even ate with him.
My second strand of evidence supporting the resurrection is the remarkable transformation in the disciples. Jesus’ arrest and execution left them distraught, demoralised, and afraid. Yet six weeks later they’re standing on street corners and in the Temple fearlessly proclaiming that they have seen the risen Jesus – a message that shook Jerusalem to its core and which despite huge persecution, spread rapidly outwards through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the Earth: even rural Worcestershire.
Modern science first came up with the Big Bang theory because scientists looked at our rapidly expanding universe and concluded that something pretty remarkable (a big bang) had to have set everything in motion. It’s the same with Christianity. When you look at the rapid expansion of the early church it’s clear something remarkable happened to set everything in motion. Which of the explanations do you think best fits the evidence?
First published in the Bridge Magazine, April 2018
If you’d like to read more on arguments about the resurrection, Who Moved the Stone? By Frank Morison, a sceptic who set out to disprove the resurrection is a great place to start. Or catch the film Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes.