Did the resurrection really happen?

April 18, 2022

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Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus. Christians do not believe that Jesus was merely resuscitated after what we might call a “near-death experience,” or raised from the dead in a metaphorical sense because he continued to “live on” in the memory of his followers. No, Christians believe that Jesus died a violent death on a Roman cross and then was raised with a new physical body to a whole new mode of existence. If the resurrection really happened, then that changes everything. The question is: Can we believe it?

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    Christianity stands or falls upon the resurrection of Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus was raised from the dead with a new physical body to a whole new mode of existence. That’s the hinge upon which everything else turns. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then nothing else he did or said really matters.

    But the problem with the resurrection account is that we all know that when people die they stay dead. But the fact that people do not ordinarily rise from the dead is not an argument against the Christian claim; it is part of the claim itself. Christians believe that what happened to Jesus is unique, and that is why they worship him as they do. The question is: Can we believe it?

    Let me give you a few reasons to believe in the reality of the resurrection. I would like you to consider three claims that are historically secure. We can debate the significance of these claims, but we cannot ignore them.

    The first is the tomb was empty. The four gospels were written within decades of the events they describe, and they show all the marks of authenticity. They are not strictly identical. There are slight differences in some of the details—which is what you would expect from reports based on eyewitness accounts. Despite those minor discrepancies, however, all four are united in their testimony that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was empty on the third day. Several women went to the tomb early in the morning after the Sabbath had passed, not expecting to find a risen Jesus, but a very dead Jesus in need of a proper burial. But the body was not there. 

    It is remarkable that the gospels unanimously agree that women were the first to discover the empty tomb because women were not allowed to testify in court. They were not considered credible witnesses. Given ancient attitudes towards women, you can imagine the gospel writers must have felt pressure to change that one little detail to make their claims more plausible to their readers. But the fact that all four gospels insist that women were the first to see the empty tomb suggests that these stories were not invented.

    A number of alternative explanations have been offered. Perhaps the women went to the wrong tomb or the body was stolen. Another theory is that Jesus did not die on the cross, but merely fainted and then revived while in the tomb and left. Personally, I find it harder to believe that after being tortured, flogged and crucified, Jesus survived 36 hours in a cold, dark cave without food, water, or medical attention and recovered with enough strength to remove the boulder sealing the entrance, escape detection by the guards and give his followers the impression—not that he had been beaten within an inch of his life but that he had conquered death itself. Talk about a conspiracy theory! No, the best explanation is the simplest. The tomb really was empty.

    The second claim we need to consider is the risen Jesus was seen. The New Testament records at least 10 different appearances of Jesus to different people, in different locations, and in different states of mind. The Apostle Paul reproduced a definitive list of appearances in his Letter to the Corinthians which was written within 20 to 25 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Paul recounts that Jesus appeared to individuals, small groups, and even to 500 people at one time, many of whom were still alive at the time of writing and known to the community. The implication of Paul’s words was clear. “If you don’t believe what I am telling you, go and ask the eyewitnesses for yourself.” All that would have been required to squash such claims would have been for one person to say: “I was there, and it didn’t happen.” But no one ever came forward.

    Finally, the disciples were changed. The gospels do not portray Jesus’ followers positively during his public ministry. They do not demonstrate much faith. They are constantly jockeying for position. They never understand what Jesus is saying. And they consistently let him down. But after the resurrection, they are completely changed. They are willing to risk their lives for what they have seen and heard. It is possible that they made it all up, but if so, no one ever broke down and said it was all a lie—even at the cost of their own life. People will die for something they believe to be true (even if they are mistaken), but no one will die for what they know to be false. Something must have happened to change their cowardice into courage and their fear into faith.

    The New Testament scholar NT Wright makes the point that no one from a Greek or Jewish background was expecting anything like the bodily resurrection of a single individual in the middle of history no matter how depressed or hopeful they felt, or how much dissonance they experienced after Jesus’ death. 

    So how do you account for the sudden emergence of belief in the resurrection which sprung up literally overnight and spread like wildfire through the Mediterranean world? These claims of the empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus, and the transformed disciples may not mean much on their own, but taken together they provide compelling evidence for the reality of the resurrection. And if the resurrection really happened, then that changes everything.

    Written by Jason Harris
    Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
    Filmed and edited by Andrew Walker