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The Question of the Resurrection

March 30, 2013
Jesus' resurrection

With Easter just around the corner, I chose to do at least two blogs concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. My first blog was an in depth look at the crucifixion, and this blog will center around the resurrection. A great little book dropped into my lap a few weeks back, called: “The Case for the Resurrection” by Lee Strobel. There is a link to this book on my Thanks page. Much of this blog will center around this book and the questions it raises and answers with my own thoughts thrown into the mix. As Easter sneaks up on us, I invite you all to think on this pivotal matter and what it means to you.

What Does the Resurrection Mean?

When I first cracked open the book, it posed and interesting theory to me. It was written by a former atheist, who was married to a Christian woman, and firmly believed in the total non-existence of God. Then a question came to him, and it was the question of the resurrection of Jesus. Did it really happen? Was it spiritual or physical or both? Even as an atheist, he believed that Jesus did, in fact, die on the cross. The crucifixion was historical fact as far as he was concerned. But the question remained of the resurrection. If, indeed, the resurrection did occur it would settle everything. The fundamental arguments concerning the validity of religion would have a valid and unquestionable answer, as would the existence of God. He set out on a journey to answer this question. And this journey brought him to Christ.

As a Christian, this question is easily answered. The resurrection represented God’s victory over the forces of death and sin. It is the key to victory in the Christian life because of our union with Christ. Because of the resurrection, we receive both eternal life and spiritual power. Had the resurrection not occurred, then we would still live in fear of sin and death, with no hope for our future.

But what proof is there in the resurrection? How can we truly believe that it happened and what it represented? This little gem of a book answers those questions, and does so using the gospels. I’d like to summarize this, with various points from the book thrown into my dialogue. I borrow heavily from this book for this post, and if you’d like a full reading of it, it can be found here.

The Account of the Resurrection

Jesus Appears to Mary

Jesus Appears to Mary

The Finding of the Empty Tomb

When Jesus was buried, his tomb was put under constant guard. The chief priests and the Pharisees came to Pilate to ask for a contingent of guards to watch over the tomb because they remembered Jesus’ words: “After three days I will rise again.” – Matthew 27:63. They were afraid that Jesus’ disciples would come in the night, steal Jesus’ body from the tomb and declare that He had risen. Pilate authorized a guard and told them to make the tomb as secure as they were able (Matthew 27:6266). Matthew goes on to say (after the actual resurrection event) that the report of the guard surrounding the tomb was covered up as well. After the guards reported the missing body of Jesus, the elders gave them large sums of money and told them to report that the Jews had taken the body while they slept (Matthew 28:11-15). This is an interesting deception given that those disciples defected just a few days earlier in the Garden of Gethsemane. Also, I find it hard to believe that the soldiers could testify about anything that happened while they slept. Interestingly enough, according to Matthew 28:15, the Jews still declare this false report to be true: “… and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.” Clearly we have to take this in context as “this day” at the time of the writing was somewhere around A.D. 60-90. However, most Jewish religions reject Jesus as the Messiah to this day.

Returning to the topic at hand, all four gospels account for the resurrection. There are a variety of details contained in each gospel, however these details tend to compliment each other rather than contradict. The slight differences will be recounted here, and for some modern readers can cause alarm, but most historians and bible scholars consider these to be secondary details and no cause for concern. All four gospels report that the tomb was found empty “in the end of the Sabbath” (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1, John 20:1). The angel that appears to open the tomb was not there to let Him out, but to show that it was empty and that He was already gone. Matthew records that Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” found the sepulcher empty and were told to “go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead…” – Matthew 28:1-10 (the “other Mary” is the mother of James and Joses and the wife of Cleophas mentioned in John 19:25 and reported to be Jesus’ mother’s sister). Mark reports that Mary Magdalene and “Mary the mother of James, and Salome” (v16:1) went to the tomb to anoint Jesus with “sweet spices“. In this account, the angel was already in the opened tomb rather than descending from heaven to open it for them.  Luke 24 records the same details, however the women that went to the tomb that day were “Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them“. – v10. In this account, Peter went to the tomb to confirm this story (v12) though, it would seem that none of the disciples were convinced, merely bewildered. Luke also records two angels rather than one meeting the women at the tomb (v4). John 20 records that Mary Magdalene found the empty tomb and ran to tell Peter and John this news. From the other accounts, we know there were other women present during this event as well. John also records two angels rather than just one (v12), however, again, this is hardly contradictory as whenever there are two of something, there is also one. John and Luke merely add to the secondary details. From all four accounts, we can see that Jesus’ tomb was found empty in the early morning hours by a group of women followers. Given that all four accounts have slightly different details, we can assume that the authors of these accounts had multiple independent sources. One could say that Matthew and Luke copied from Mark’s account, but a complete examination of the different details shows that even if Matthew and Luke knew of Mark’s account, they also had their own sources of information concerning the event. The reason for John mentioning only Mary is also easily reconciled as she may have simply been the first on the scene so John mentions only her. That’s hardly a contradiction.

It behooves us to mention the credibility of female witnesses in the resurrection accounts. Apparently, the testimony of the women was considered suspect as they would not be objective observers of the event as they were “friends” of Jesus during His ministry. As women in first century Jewish culture were on a lower rung of the social ladder, the fact that they are recorded as the first witnesses to Jesus’ empty tomb is, in and of itself, astounding evidence as to the historicity of the event. In a Jewish court of law, female testimony was considered so worthless that they were not even considered for legal witnesses. Therefore, it is astounding that the writers of the Gospels would leave this testimony in place. It shows that, like it or not, theses women were the first to discover the tomb! As for the women’s actions in going to the tomb in the first place, it can easily be explained as well. These women were grieving for a lost loved one. Certainly they would not be able to move the stone covering the tomb by themselves, but perhaps they thought there would be men, or guards around that would move it for them. Anointing a body with oils is certainly a well known Jewish practice. I certainly don’t see any suspicious behavior from the women in this regard.

Jesus’ Appearances

One of the more prominent accounts of Jesus’ appearances was in Luke 24:13. In this account, Jesus walked the road to Emmaus with two of His disciples conversing with them but hiding himself through some form of divine intervention (v16). There are some skeptics that believe that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, but that he survived. This account in Luke (the only gospel containing this story) suggests a true physical resurrection. Even if Jesus were to have survived his ordeal on the cross, discarded his linen wrappings, move the giant boulder covering his tomb and sneak past the guard, he would hardly be in any condition to walk after having nails hammered into his feet. This man not only lost His entire blood and fluid supply, but was covered in welts and gashes, arms pulled from their sockets, and had a spear wound in his side. The appearance of such a man would hardly inspire the uprising of an entire religious movement surrounding this man’s resurrection and triumph over death. Most likely His disciples would have pitied Him and attempted to nurse Him back to health. The passages in Luke 24:13 indicate that Jesus was given a fully functional resurrection body that appeared, at times, different from his original body. Part of our faith is one day obtaining new resurrected bodies such as the one given Jesus. If Jesus were to return just as he left us, in a battered, broken, and beaten body, would so many of His disciples willingly go to their deaths in the hope of one day obtaining the same?

On the same note, it is also shown that Jesus retained His scars and wounds, as they were used as proof of His resurrection. Jesus appeared to Thomas in John 20:24 and allowed Thomas to stick his fingers through the holes in His wrists and the spear wound in His side (v27). Luke 24:36 shows also another appearance to His disciples wherein He invited them to look upon his wounds and believe (v39-40). He also asks for food (Luke 24:41, John 21:5), indicating to us that Jesus did reappear in bodily form and that He retained His scars, could be touched, and even ate. The discreet appearances wherein he appeared to them differently, I believe, were tests to see who would believe without seeing. As Jesus states in John 20:29 after the conversion of Thomas: “… Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Kind of hard to have faith in something that you can see, hear, and touch. It’s not considered faith then, is it? Let’s not forget, also, Hebrews 13:2: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Luke 24:28-31 shows that the two disciples He traveled with on the road to Emmaus offered Him lodging and food for the evening and that He opened their eyes to Him after the breaking of the bread. Kindness to strangers, for one never knows when one is being kind to an angel, or in their case, Christ Himself!

Christ also appeared to His eleven apostles in Matthew 28:16-20, and to many of His disciples, including the apostles in the Mount of Olives shortly before His ascension (Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1:3-9). We therefore have a wealth of eyewitness accounts of the resurrected Jesus. Acts is littered with references to this event, Peter being among the most adamant about it. This wasn’t just a few eyewitnesses to some shadowy figure, this was multiple accounts of the same person appearing to numerous people and corroborated in all the gospels. Since the resurrection was most likely the focal point for the early church, it seems likely that they would have made absolutely sure that it was true.

Other Evidence

Jesus' Ascension

Jesus’ Ascension

Some of the strongest evidence for a true resurrection is in the subsequent activities of the church after Jesus’ ascension. One of the most prominent accounts is the tale of Stephen in Acts 6 and 7. His activities strongly suggest that he was a Hellenist, meaning that he accepted at least some of the Greek customs and was not a Jew in the strictest Palestinian tradition. He was, however, full of the Spirit, faith, wisdom, and power. His career was short, but illustrious. He was arrested, persecuted, and finally executed by stoning. Not once did he waver from his faith in the Lord God and the ministry of Jesus.

We also have the conversion of Saul (Acts 9), a man who ruthlessly persecuted the early church and was responsible for the arrest and death of Stephen mentioned above. This man was so utterly convinced of Christ’s resurrection that he completely changed and went to his death believing it. Most know him better as Paul, who wrote the various epistles in the New Testament.

Acts is littered with events similar to this. Paul, Stephen, even Jesus’ half-brother James were all transformed to the point where they were willing to suffer persecution and martyrdom for their belief in the risen Christ. Of course there are many religions where people are willing to die for their beliefs, so what does this really prove? That they certainly regarded their beliefs as true. They didn’t willingly lie about any of it as liars make for bad martyrs. They didn’t just believe it though, they knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt and were willing to die for the truth of the resurrection. A modern day Islamic terrorist can only have faith that their beliefs are true, but are never in a position to know for sure. The disciples died for the truth, not for faith.

If one were to believe that Jesus died and that His disciples stole His body and began a worldwide religious movement based on a lie, I find it hard to believe that it would have survived so much persecution and converted so many vehement non-believers. Paul’s conversion lends weight to the true resurrection account. We now have testimony from friend and foe alike! How else can we explain this radical transformation from ruthless persecutor of the church to one of the most well known preachers of the good Word? It demands an explanation! Six other ancient sources such as Luke, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysius of Corinth, and Origen all report that Paul was willing to suffer continuously and even die for these beliefs. This points to strong evidence for a true, spiritual, and physical resurrection of Christ!

Conclusion

The resurrection of Jesus was a remarkable event, symbolizing God’s victory over the wages of sin and death in the world. From it, we gain the hope and freedom to avoid spiritual death and reign forever with God in His Kingdom of Heaven. How amazing it must have been for His closest and deepest friends to have found Him alive three days after His death! Jesus’ ordeal on the cross was brutal, bloody, and harrowing, but now we know that it was for a purpose! For “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” – John 14:6. Jesus is our savior in every sense of the word, and our union with Him will bring us to future resurrection through Him! The resurrection is the key event in Christian history, the event that trumps all others as it proves God’s sovereignty over life and death, and that His all knowing truth is our only salvation. We should always feel blessed that God gave us the gift of His Son! For through Him, we find life, light, and most importantly: LOVE.

Published by Jay McAnally
Copyright © 2013
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