Why do Christians base their entire lives around an event that happened so long ago? How can they be so sure about something that seems so far-fetched? In this post we take a look at some of the evidence to back up Christianity’s most amazing claim; that Jesus Christ died and then rose again.
In the post ‘Was Jesus really God?’ we looked at why the popular view that Jesus was no more than a great moral teacher doesn’t fit the facts. We saw that Jesus’ claims to be God were so outrageous and extreme that the only alternatives open to us are to say (1) that Jesus was an evil man who deliberately set out to deceive people into thinking he was the unique Son of God, when he knew he wasn’t, or (2) that Jesus was insane in that he was convinced he was the unique Son of God, when actually he wasn’t, or (3) that his claims were true. And we asked, “Which of the three possible verdicts best fits the facts?” In this post we are looking at another piece of evidence: his resurrection from the dead.’
Now at this point you might be asking, ‘so what? Even if you convince me that Jesus rose from the dead, so what? How can anything that happened so long ago make any difference to me? It’s irrelevant.’
And that would be a valid opinion but let me counter with this: what if I introduced you to a carpenter who said to you, “soon someone is going to kill me, but after they’ve buried me, three days later I’ll rise from the dead, and then we’ll go out for a meal to celebrate. And my resurrection will be the proof that I’m the Son of God and the key to your eternal destiny”. The natural response would be to ignore him or maybe recommend a psychiatrist! But what if you next saw him on the six o’clock news murdered, certified dead on arrival at hospital and then buried. What if then three days later, he comes up to you in Burger King and says “Hi, do you believe me now?” I daresay you’d take his claim to be God and the key to your eternal destiny a little more seriously, wouldn’t you?
This is exactly why the resurrection of Jesus is so important to the Christian faith, Jesus told his disciples he would raise from the dead and if it could be proved that he actually didn’t, he would be a liar and Christianity would crumble.
However the resurrection evidence shows that Christianity is true – not just for me, but for everyone. Because I can be sure Jesus rose from the dead, I know that Jesus has proved his claims to be true; that he’s alive today. So through faith in him and his resurrection, I know that I can enjoy a relationship with God right now that totally satisfies me, and which will go on forever.
Lets look at the facts. For starters it is a fact that the tomb was empty. It is an undisputed fact that Jesus’ dead body disappeared. Even an atheist historian will tell you that on the third day the tomb was empty. Three days after Jesus’ body was buried, it simply wasn’t there. All historians agree that if Jesus’ dead body had been in the tomb, then the Jews or Romans would have produced it as soon as the first Christians started claiming that Jesus was alive. Remember, Jesus of Nazareth had been such a blasphemous threat to the Jews and such a political threat to the Romans that they conspired together to crucify him. The whole point was to snuff out Jesus and his movement. So the last thing they wanted was Jesus’ disciples persuading people he’d risen like he said he would. If they’d had the body, then as the disciples toured Jerusalem saying, “Christ is risen,” the Jews or Romans would have put Jesus’ corpse on a cart and wheeled him round Jerusalem saying, “No he’s not. Come and see for yourselves. Here’s his dead body.” The best they could do to explain the empty tomb was to make up a pretty unconvincing story that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body while all the guards had fallen asleep, which, if nothing else, proves that they didn’t have the body.
Another question Christians have faced is: what if they took Jesus down from the cross too early? What if he didn’t die on the cross? He would recover in the tomb, and then when he meets the disciples they all think he’s resurrected!
Firstly, if this was the case, you’ve got to admire his stamina. First of all he was whipped 39 times before he even got to the cross. The course book says that sometimes people sentenced to crucifixion never even made it to the cross; they died during the flogging. This is because a Roman flogging was done with a whip of leather strips with bits of bone and glass in it. The flogging would almost certainly have sent Jesus into hypovolaemic shock (from losing a large amount of blood). The gospels show evidence of this. The whipping would have reduced much of his back to quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. In fact a third-century historian, Eusebius, described how so much flesh was torn away during a Roman flogging that it was sometimes possible to see the internal organs of the person being whipped.
The Romans didn’t muck about. They were experts at executing people. These soldiers were a professional crucifixion team. It was their job. Besides, if a prisoner escaped death, the responsible soldiers would be put to death themselves! So they had a huge incentive to make absolutely sure that Jesus was dead before they removed his body from the cross. On top of this they thrust a spear into his heart to finish him off and the gospel account of the separated water and blood that flowed out of the spear wound is good medical evidence that Jesus was already dead.
Medical doctor Alexander Metherell comments: ‘the spear apparently went through the right lung and into the heart, so when the spear was pulled out, some fluid – the pericardial effusion and the pleural effusion – came out. This would have the appearance of a clear fluid, like water, followed by a large volume of blood, as the eyewitness John described in his gospel’ (John 19:34–37). Unless John had specific medical training, which is unlikely, he would not have known that this detail is consistent with the fact that Jesus was already dead. Medical doctor William D. Edwards concludes: ‘Clearly the weight of the historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted . . . accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.’ Both of the above extracts are quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, pp. 199–204.
So the idea that Jesus never died on the cross asks us to believe that a man could survive a Roman flogging, a crucifixion and a spear through his heart, and then unwrap himself from yards of cloth probably soaked in 34 kilograms of spice, push away a huge stone, fight his way past up to 16 guards, and then appear to his disciples as the picture of health, convincing them that one day they could have a glorious resurrection body like his. More importantly, this explanation also requires Jesus to become a liar and a hoaxer, who contrived the world’s most elaborate deception: Christianity.
So this argument has failed us. Lets imagine another scenario where the disciples, sad because of the dead of their messiah, decide to steal the body to keep the dream alive.
Setting aside the knowledge that these men were strict Jews, who lived to a very high moral standard, are we really going to say that these people went all over the world telling people Jesus had risen from the dead when they knew it was really only a miserable lie?
The biggest problem with this argument is that the disciples didn’t just say that Jesus was risen; they actually died for it. Nobody dies for something they know isn’t true. The disciples were in the unique position of knowing without a doubt whether or not they were tomb raiders. If they’d stolen the body and somehow hoaxed the resurrection appearances, they wouldn’t have allowed themselves to be tortured to death for it. Many of the disciples were literally crucified for their belief in the resurrection. Right up until the last minute they could have escaped death simply by admitting that they’d stolen Jesus’ body. If the resurrection was a scam they’d invented, don’t you think at least one of them would have cracked and said, “I give up. You’re right. It’s a lie. We stole the body. The resurrection’s just a lie we made up. Now for goodness’ sake cut me down from this cross, so I can get on with the rest of my life”? But none of them ever said that because they knew Jesus had risen.
Ok, so from this point we can conclude that even if the resurrection didn’t happen, the disciples fully believed that it did and were prepared to stake their lives on it. This leads us to two logical solutions, either it was true or…
Let’s just be clear: for this idea to work we’ve got to say that all 550-odd people who saw the resurrected Jesus, on eleven different occasions, over a period of six weeks, were all hallucinating the same thing. That everyone who had meals with him, and those who said they touched him and had long conversations with him, were all hallucinating.
Firstly, there no evidence that any other group hallucinations have taken place. Only one person can see a specific hallucination at any one time. And there’s no reason to think I could ever somehow produce a hallucination in you. Remember, the whole point of a hallucination is that there’s nothing actually there. If I’m having a hallucination, it’s all in my mind, so obviously nobody else can see exactly what I’m seeing. So even if two people did hallucinate seeing Jesus at the same time, for one person he might be eating fish, but for the other he might be flying through the sky. And let’s face it; hallucinations are very rare. If they happen they’re usually caused by bodily deprivation or drug abuse. Are we really being asked to believe that over the course of many weeks, hundreds of people in various locations from all sorts of backgrounds and with different temperaments all had identical, simultaneous hallucinations? And individuals who do hallucinate don’t usually suddenly stop. The number of resurrection appearances, and the fact that the appearances came to an abrupt halt, make the hallucination theory even more unlikely. The resurrection appearances come thick and fast at the end of the gospels, until Acts 1:9, when Jesus ascends to heaven. It is also worth pointing out that according to the gospels, the disciples were not expecting Jesus to rise at all. The disciples were depressed and disillusioned at the time of Jesus’ death. Like everyone else they believed that someone who had been crucified was cursed. They’d all deserted Jesus, and were actually cowering in a room behind a locked door. And every time they were told Jesus had risen they didn’t believe it. Yet suddenly, in the book of Acts, we find that they’re prepared to go hungry, naked, ridiculed, beaten, imprisoned and be martyred. What adequate alternative explanation is suggested for their transformation?
Remember, hallucinations can’t be touched, but the resurrected Jesus was tangible. He ate a piece of fish and on one occasion he cooked breakfast for the disciples. Peter says that they ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he held long conversations with them.
The final nail in the coffin of any hallucination theory is that even if it were true, it wouldn’t solve the problem. You see, if you were to reject everything psychologists tell us about hallucinations, and say that Christianity is based on mass hallucination, you’ve still got to explain the empty tomb. You’ve still got to explain why the authorities didn’t produce the real body of Jesus. And, as we’ve already seen, none of the alternative explanations for the empty tomb work. The only one that does fit the facts is that Jesus was and is risen.
There it is. The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is overwhelming and by any logically minded person, undisputed. Sir Edward Clarke, a High Court lawyer, said in a letter to the Revd E. L. Macassey
“As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the evidence for the events of Easter Day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling. As a lawyer I accept the Gospel evidence unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to facts they were able to substantiate.” (Quoted in Michael Green, Christ is Risen, So What? [Sovereign World, 1995], p. 34)
Professor Thomas Arnold, Chair of Modern History at Oxford University, said:
“I have been used for many years to studying the histories of other times, and to examining and weighing the evidence of those who have written about them. And I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair inquirer, than the great sign which God has given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead.” (Quoted by Wilbur Smith, Therefore Stand: Christian Apologetics [Baker Book House, 1965], pp. 425–26)
Lord Darling, a former Lord Chief Justice and therefore the most senior legal mind in Britain, said of the resurrection of Jesus:
‘In its favour as living truth there exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the resurrection is true’ (quoted in Michael Green, Man Alive [IVP, 1968]).
Lord Caldecote, another former Lord Chief Justice, said that the evidence was so convincing that he described the resurrection of Jesus as ‘a fact beyond dispute’.