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Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead?

Welcome to the courtroom! Today, the prosecution is bringing the case that Jesus of Nazareth, after having been killed on a cross, was raised from the dead three days later. The defence rejects this as self-evidently impossible. This pair of statements is almost enough on its own to justify the courtroom analogy: much like as in a trial, something as scientifically unexpected as rising from the dead should be considered impossible unless there really can be no other reasonable explanation for the evidence provided. It’s akin to the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, requiring something to be proven to be ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

The Resurrection is unexpected. Therefore those who believe that it happened must act as the prosecution does in court, understanding that until all the evidence is presented a person is unlikely to just agree with them on the matter. Not only that, this process cannot just be laying out a positive case; it needs to address all reasonable objections and alternative explanations of that evidence.

Why Does It Matter?

[perfectpullquote align=”right” size=”17″ cite=”M. Johnston” link=””]…the claim made by Christians regarding the Resurrection is one for which any worldview needs to have an answer if it wishes to be based on observed truth in the world.[/perfectpullquote]

One important part of an objective court ruling is that it no-one involved in the decision has a ‘vested interest’, meaning that they aren’t going to be benefited by choosing a certain outcome. But there’s quite a set of vested interests in this ruling.

If Jesus Did Not Rise From The Dead

Let’s start with what Christians have to lose if Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead:

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ… And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.‘ (1 Cor. 14-19)

The apostle Paul considered the stakes that Christians have in this discussion immeasurable. If Jesus did not rise from the dead:

  • As a preacher of Christian teachings, by saying untrue things about God, Paul would have to consider himself a blasphemer;
  • A Christian’s faith is ‘vain’ (devoid of truth, resulting in nothing, pointless);
  • The claimed consequences of their faith – namely, forgiveness of sins and eternal life with Christ – are non-existent;
  • All those who have suffered persecution because of their Christian faith did so foolishly and are to be pitied.

It is easy to see why Paul had spent time before writing this in listing all those whom he considered to be eyewitnesses of the risen Christ, so that those early readers knew whom to interrogate if they were harbouring any doubts about what they had been led to believe.

If Jesus Did Rise From The Dead

It is a little harder to itemise exactly what a person has to lose if they are wrong and Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, but the list would include:

  • The existence of a God who works miracles outside of the expectations of science;
  • The teachings of Jesus were approved by God in their entirety;
  • As a consequence of this, Jesus is God incarnate and equal with the Father;
  • And furthermore, all other religious belief systems are vain if they do not account for the Resurrection.

The last two points can largely be understood as claims made by Jesus in John 14:1-11, so it’s important that we understand the second bullet point: the Resurrection proves God’s approval of Jesus’ teaching.

The Resurrection is debated because it is unprecedented; if people were being raised from the dead all the time, we wouldn’t find Jesus’ resurrection so important. But if there’s been exactly one such resurrection, what does that imply about its subject? He must be the superlative of all human existences, to be the only one deserving of such treatment. And if that is the case, then we cannot assume that he was fraudulent in his claims (such as those referenced above), because they would reduce his status to be equal to that of other religious con-men, none of whom have been afforded the same treatment.

The Trial

Bearing the aforementioned vested interests in mind, let’s do our best to take an objective look at the arguments for both sides.

The Evidence

The Empty Tomb

The disciples’ claim that Jesus had risen from the dead could not have stood for a day if the authorities who had set guards on the tomb could have opened it up to the public and shown the dead body of Jesus to all who cared to see. Those authorities that had put Jesus to death certainly didn’t have the body.

But the tomb could not have been ransacked: burial tombs at the time had very large stones in the doorways, sometimes weighing as much as two tonnes. Factor in the armed guard as well, and there is no chance the disciples of Jesus – too fearful to intervene as he was escorted by soldiers to the cross – summoned up the courage to fight for his corpse.

Eyewitness Accounts

In Paul’s writings to the church in Corinth, he reminded them that many of the witnesses of the resurrected Christ were still alive and could be questioned, and recorded that over 500 people saw him at one time after his death. These are significant numbers, and with Christians being persecuted by the Jewish religious authorities and the Romans later exiling many ethnic Jews from their homeland to suppress wars in the region, these eyewitnesses would have made their way around the Mediterranean. It was possible for many Christian converts within the Roman Empire to speak to one of these witnesses, giving the verification they needed to keep following this persecuted faith.

The Changed Lives Of The Disciples

Why did Jesus’ disciples give up everything for a dead man? Why did they face stoning, lions, torture, crucifixion and incineration for something they were not wholeheartedly convinced of? How did Paul, that most aggressive of persecutors, become a prolific missionary? Not for material gain, nor prestige: he worked as a tent-maker to subsidise his work, and died a prisoner in Rome. Such was the high profile of those early apostles, the defection of any one of them from a ‘resurrection conspiracy’ would have been a death knell for the faith and would have been lucratively rewarded by those authorities wishing to stamp it out. The only reasonable explanation was that these men had seen something that bound their allegiance unwaveringly to the faith: they had seen the resurrected Christ.

Common Accusations

Jesus Was Not Crucified

There is a broad scholarly consensus that the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth outside Jerusalem under the oversight of Pontius Pilate is an indisputable historical fact. The claim that Jesus wasn’t crucified is often made because it would be considered embarrassing for a prophet such as Jesus to have been killed in such a shameful way; however, this embarrassment is reason for historians to believe in the historical death of Jesus – Jesus’ disciples would not have chosen this manner of death for their leader if they were inventing it themselves. Further arguments for the death of Jesus are: multiple sources attest to the fact, including those of non-Christian writers; the crucifixion fits into a wider historical context; no sources from that era deny it as having happened.

Jesus Survived The Crucifixion

[perfectpullquote size=”18″ cite=”M. Johnston” link=””]The only reasonable explanation was that [the first disciples] had seen something that bound their allegiance unwaveringly to the faith: they had seen the resurrected Christ.[/perfectpullquote]

Based upon the fact that deaths by crucifixion were often incredibly slow, this theory claims that Jesus was not on the cross long enough to have died. This statement may look convincing in isolation, but it does not account for various environmental factors, including the physical condition of Jesus as he was taken to the cross and the context of his being killed as a known figure in society for having displeased the authorities. This was the final part of Jesus’ public shaming, an act that started with his being scourged in front of a crowd. The damage the barbed whips would have done to his back and thighs would have been horrific, and he would have been weakened by significant blood loss before the crucifixion. Furthermore, as a high-profile killing, there would need to be a guarantee of his death – his dead body – so they kept it under guard.

But suppose, in spite of these things, Jesus had still survived the cross. He would have needed serious medical treatment and for much longer than three days to have resuscitated. In the words of skeptic David Strauss:

It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to His sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that He was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation… could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”[footnote]Struss, NLJ, 1:412[/footnote]

The Verdict

As we have considered, the claim made by Christians regarding the Resurrection is one for which any worldview needs to have an answer if it wishes to be based on observed truth in the world. While it should be trivial for a skeptic to dismiss the claim as ridiculous, there remains no reasonable objection to the events as presented in the gospels that also explains the explosive growth of the Christian faith under Roman oppression in the first Century.

Comments 5
  1. Excellent defence. Good to share on other pages. Any chance ‘benfited’ could be given only one ‘t’? M.A.

  2. Thanks, Martin. I’ve updated the spelling. Perhaps more worrying than forgetting about the rules of stressed syllables was that I mistakenly attributed the wriring of 1 Corinthians to Luke instead of Paul in one place. Hopefully the current draft is solid.

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