The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: Myth Or Fact?By Brian Anderson
If someone is able to successfully dislodge the foundation stone of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the whole edifice of Christianity will come tumbling down. The apostle Paul said as much over 1,900 years ago when he penned these words:
...if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins... If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. 1 Corinthians 15:17,19
Christian author Michael Green in his book, Man Alive, speaks to this issue well when he writes:
Christianity does not hold the resurrection to be one among many tenets of belief. Without faith in the resurrection there would be no Christianity at all. The Christian church would never have begun; the Jesus-movement would have fizzled out like a damp squib with His execution. Christianity stands or falls with the truth of the resurrection. Once disprove it, and you have disposed of Christianity.2
Likewise Philip Schaff, the church historian adds:
The resurrection of Christ is therefore emphatically a test question upon which depends the truth or falsehood of the Christian religion. It is either the greatest miracle or the greatest delusion which history records.3
Over the centuries there have been many who have sought to disprove the resurrection of Christ and thus do away with the Christian faith, but all have come face to face with one huge obstacle -- the fact of Christ's empty tomb. There is no serious question among scholars as to whether the tomb was empty; it is obvious that it must have been. If the tomb were not empty, it is inconceivable that the apostles of Christ could make thousands of converts in Jerusalem by preaching Christ's resurrection. All any of their hearers would have had to do was go to the tomb and see that the apostles were preaching a lie. Along these lines J. N. D. Anderson, professor of oriental law at the University of London, has written:
The empty tomb stands, a veritable rock, as an essential element in the evidence for the resurrection. To suggest that it was not in fact empty at all, as some have done, seems to me ridiculous. It is a matter of history that the apostles from the very beginning made many converts in Jerusalem, hostile as it was, by proclaiming the glad news that Christ had risen from the grave - and they did it within a short walk from the sepulcher. Any one of their hearers could have visited the tomb and come back again between lunch and whatever may have been the equivalent of afternoon tea. Is it conceivable, then, that the apostles would have had this success if the body of the one they proclaimed as risen Lord was all the time decomposing in Joseph's tomb? Would a great company of the priests and many hard-headed Pharisees have been impressed with the proclamation of a resurrection which was in fact no resurrection at all, but a mere message of spiritual survival couched in the misleading terms of a literal rising from the grave?4
More importantly, if the tomb wasn't empty, why didn't Jesus' enemies simply go to the tomb and parade the body through the streets of Jerusalem in order to wipe out the explosive new movement? Instead of this, we find that they interrogated, threatened, flogged, imprisoned, and killed Christians in order to silence Christ's followers (Acts 4:7,18; 5:17-18,40; 7:54-60; 8:1-3; 12:1-4). Because of the empty tomb skeptics of the Christian faith have devised several different explanations, but when each one is analyzed on its own merits it becomes apparent that none of them are convincing; rather, the most plausible solution is that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, just as He said He would be.
The Swoon Theory
One common theory given by skeptics to explain the empty tomb is the Swoon Theory. This theory suggests that Jesus never actually died on the cross. Rather, he fainted, but was later revived in the tomb. Proponents of this theory buttress their argument by asserting that medical knowledge at the time of Christ was not very sophisticated; thus the soldiers in charge of executing Him only thought that He was dead. Later He was revived by the cool air in the tomb, arose and departed. Although at first this theory may appear to have some merit, it begins to crumble in the face of the facts. First, it must be remembered that when the soldiers came to Jesus, after noting that He was already dead, they pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water (Jn.19:32-34). This issue of blood and water from His side is a strong proof that Christ had already died. Michael Green explains:
We are told on eyewitness authority that 'blood and water' came out of the pierced side of Jesus (Jn. 19:34,35). The eyewitness clearly attached great importance to this. Had Jesus been alive when the spear pierced His side, strong spouts of blood would have emerged with every heart beat. Instead, the observer noticed semi-solid dark red clots seeping out, distinct and separate from the accompanying watery serum. This is evidence of massive clotting of the blood in the main arteries, and is exceptionally strong medical proof of death. It is all the more impressive because the evangelist could not possibly have realized its significance to a pathologist. The 'blood and water' from the spear-thrust is proof positive that Jesus was already dead.5
Furthermore, remember that two of Jesus' disciples, Joseph and Nicodemus, buried Him (Mt.27:57-60). If there was the slightest chance that Christ was still alive, they never would have gone through with the burial. Moreover, the centurion overseeing the execution publicly declared that Jesus had died (Mt.27:54). Roman centurions witnessed the execution of men daily. It was part of their job to know when a man had died. If anyone would have known whether Jesus was dead or not, surely it would have been the centurion. Additionally, a man is not revived by wrapping him in seventy to one hundred pounds of spices and then shutting him up in an airtight tomb (Jn.19:39-40). The strong odor of spices in an airtight tomb would kill a sick person whose brain was already seized with an unyielding swoon. Finally, if Jesus was not dead it would mean that He appeared radiant to His disciples after not having His wounds dressed nor eaten or drank for three days, moved a stone three women felt incapable of moving, fought off the Roman guards single-handedly, walked seven miles to Emmaus on pierced feet, lived in hiding for forty days making occasional appearances, and then lived out the rest of His life in complete solitude. The Swoon Theory must be rejected because it simply cannot stand up under close investigation.
The Stolen Body Theory
A second theory that has been proposed is the Stolen Body Theory. Some advocates of this theory propose that the Jewish leaders stole the dead body of Jesus after it was deposited in the tomb. In response to this explanation for the empty tomb it must be asked whether the Jewish leaders had any motive in stealing the body. All the evidence leads us to the opposite conclusion. Immediately after Christ's death the Jewish leaders went to Pilate to secure a guard to watch the tomb in order to prevent anyone from stealing the body and thus being able to say that Christ had been raised from the dead (Mt.27:62-66). If the Jews had stolen the body it would only have given the Christians a resurrection story - the very thing they were anxious not to allow to happen. The Jews didn't want Christ's body to disappear under any circumstances. Furthermore, if the Jewish leaders did steal the body, when the Christians began to proclaim the resurrection, they could easily have wheeled the body through the streets of Jerusalem in order to confound their claims and crush the new Christian "sect."
Other proponents of the Stolen Body Theory, on the other hand, claim that the body of Jesus was stolen by the Christians. However, when carefully examined, this view is even less convincing than the view that the body was stolen by the Jewish leaders. The early believers are never arrested for the crime - an inexplicable fact unless the Jewish leaders knew they were not guilty. Furthermore, why would Peter and John run to the tomb to see if Jesus had risen if they had already stolen His body (Jn.20:3-8)? In John 20:19 we read that the disciples were timid and fearful. Is it reasonable to suppose that these timid disciples would attempt to overtake a disciplined and deadly Roman guard or that the guards would all fall asleep? The penalty to a Roman guard for sleeping on the job was death6, and even if they did go to sleep, the noise of the stone being pushed out of place would surely have awakened them. Additionally, even if the disciples of Jesus had found all of the soldiers sleeping, and removed the stone without waking them, it is highly unlikely that they would have taken the time to remove the wrappings from the body and restore them to their original shape (Jn.20:6-7). It is much more likely that if they had removed them at all they would have flung them on the ground in disorder and fled. Moreover, the Christians had no motive for stealing the body. If Jesus had not risen, His dead body would profit them nothing. In fact, they would be spreading a horrible lie after dedicating their lives to their Master who had taught them to be truthful in all things. Finally, there is the inescapable fact that ten of the eleven apostles of Christ went on to die for their testimony to Christ and His resurrection. There can be little doubt that though men may die for what they believe to be true, they will not die for what they know to be false. Deceivers and martyrs are not made of the same stuff. The Stolen Body Theory crumbles under close scrutiny.
The Hallucination Theory
A third theory given in explanation of the empty tomb is the Hallucination Theory. This theory states that the disciples of Jesus were in a sad and despondent state after His death. Supposedly in this depressed psychological state of mind, they were readily accessible to hallucinations that Jesus was actually alive when He was, in reality, quite dead.
It must be understood, however, that hallucinations conform to certain laws and principles. They are experienced, generally, only by highly imaginative and extremely nervous kinds of people. Furthermore, they are linked in an individual's subconscious to his past experiences. They are also usually limited to when and where they occur, being experienced in a location with a nostalgic atmosphere at a time which produces a reminiscing mood in the individual7. However, none of these factors were true concerning the appearances of Christ to His disciples. When the disciples experienced these "hallucinations," they were not of a single psychological make-up, but of many different moods. Some were weeping, others astonished, others full of remorse, while others were incredulous or distracted. Furthermore, there was nothing in those that experienced these "hallucinations" to link them with their past experience. Likewise, the "visions" appeared in many different times and locations with no nostalgic value: an afternoon on the road to Emmaus, early one morning along the Sea of Tiberias, in the evening in a private home, and on a Galilean mountainside.
Another principle to which hallucinations conform is that they require an anticipating spirit of hopeful expectancy which causes their wish to become father of the thought. Paul Little, Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, states concerning modern day hallucinations,
In order to have an experience like this, one must so intensely want to believe that he projects something that really isn't there and attaches reality to his imagination."8
The simple truth, however, is that instead of being eager to believe in Christ's resurrection, the disciples of Christ came to believe in it against their wills. The Biblical record reveals that the women were astonished at the news of Christ's resurrection (Mark 16:8). Furthermore, the Bible consistently records that the disciples refused to believe when the message of Christ's resurrection was first delivered to them (Mark 16:11,13,14; Luke 24:11,38-41; John 20:25). Indeed, as John R. W. Stott so ably points out, the truth is that
The disciples were not gullible, but rather cautious, skeptical and 'slow of heart to believe.' They were not susceptible to hallucinations. Nor would strange visions have satisfied them. Their faith was grounded upon the hard facts of verifiable experience.9
Moreover, as C. S. Lewis points out, "... any theory of hallucination breaks down on the fact that on three separate occasions this hallucination was not immediately recognized as Jesus (Luke 24:13-31; Jn.20:15; 21:4)."10
There are even more damning arguments against the Hallucination Theory. It must be remembered that it is very rare for more than one person to have the same hallucination at the same time. Yet, over five hundred persons experienced seeing the risen Christ at the same time (1Cor.15:6). Additionally, the Gospel records indicate that the disciples touched the risen Christ and watched while He ate a piece of fish in their presence (Jn.20:27; Luke 24:43-43). It must be admitted that these are not the experiences of persons having hallucinations! Furthermore, if the disciples of Jesus did experience hallucinations of Jesus alive from the dead, the Jewish leaders could have produced the corpose for all to see in order to dispel these deceiving visions once and for all. No, the Hallucination Theory lacks any kind of solid evidential support as well.
The Wrong Tomb Theory
A final theory offered by skeptics of the Christian faith to explain the empty tomb is the Wrong Tomb Theory. This theory states that the grave was indeed empty, but only because everyone went to the wrong tomb on Easter morning. Had they gone to the correct tomb, they all would have found the dead body of Jesus Christ exactly where it was laid. In response to this theory it must be noted that Christ's body was only laid in the tomb seventy-two hours before its disappearance. The women were watching where He was laid (Mk.15:47). Furthermore an angel declared,
Here is the place where they laid Him. Mark 16:6
Moreover, both Peter and John believed Jesus was laid in the same tomb, for they both ran to it (Jn.20:3-8). Are we to believe that the women, Peter and John, and the angel were all mistaken or had forgotten the location of the tomb within three days? Moreover, even if all of them were mistaken, surely Joseph, the owner of the tomb, would have cleared up any confusion. Like the other three theories devised by skeptics to disprove Christ's resurrection, the Wrong Tomb Theory lacks any convincing evidence for its support.
I believe it has been convincingly shown that Jesus did actually die and His body was laid in a tomb. Furthermore, we have seen that three days later the tomb of Christ was found empty, and that the location of the tomb was never in question. Neither is there the slightest proof that the body was stolen, or that the disciples of Christ had mass hallucinations. If none of these theories can provide an adequate answer for the empty tomb, why was the tomb empty? There is only one other possibility that can be offered to solve the riddle of the empty tomb. That solution is the one given by Christ Himself. The tomb was found empty because Jesus was raised from the dead by supernatural power. Although, admittedly, this solution is of the supernatural variety, I believe it is the most reasonable and rational of all that have ever been offered.
Jesus Predicted His Resurrection
Though we have seen much proof that the theories the skeptics have proposed to explain the empty tomb are shot through with all kinds of inconsistencies and unanswered questions, we have not yet marshaled any positive evidence for His resurrection. Is there any proof that Jesus was raised from the dead? There most assuredly is. First, the simple fact that Jesus predicted His resurrection months in advance is reason enough to seriously consider it as the answer to the empty tomb. It must be noted that Jesus Christ Himself on several occasions spanning many months, predicted with uncanny accuracy both his death and resurrection (Mt.12:40; 16:21; 17:9,22-23; 20:18-19). Wilbur Smith in his book, Therefore Stand: Christian Apologetics, aptly states:
If you or I should say to any group of friends that we expected to die, either by violence or naturally, at a certain time, but that, three days after death, we would rise again, we would be quietly taken away by friends, and confined to an institution, until our minds became clear and sound again. This would be right, for only a foolish man would go around talking about rising from the dead on the third day, only a foolish man, unless he knew that this was going to take place, and no one in the world has ever known that about himself except One Christ, the Son of God.11
The Old Testament Prophets Predicted His Resurrection
Furthermore, we have every reason to believe Jesus was telling the truth when He predicted His own resurrection because of the dozens of Old Testament prophetic predictions He fulfilled during His lifetime. A sampling of Old Testament prophecies which Jesus fulfilled include the following:
|Prophecy||O.T. Reference||N.T. Reference|
|Of the line of Abraham||Gen.12:3||Matt.1:1|
|Of the line of David||Ps. 132:11||Matt.1:1|
|Of the tribe of Judah||Gen.49:10||Rev.5:5|
|Born of a virgin||Is.7:14||Matt. 1:22-23|
|Born at Bethlehem||Micah 5:1-5||Matt.2:1; Luke 2:4|
|Would flee into Egypt||Hos.11:1||Matt.2:15|
|Would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey||Zech.9:9-10||Matt.21:4-5|
|Rejected by His people||Is.52:13 - 53:12||John 1:11|
|Betrayed by a friend||Ps.55:12-14||John 13:18|
|Sold for thirty pieces of silver||Zech.11:12-13||Matt.26:14-15|
|Scourged and spat upon||Is.50:6||Matt.26:67; 27:26|
|His hands and feet would be pierced||Ps.22:1-31||Matt.27:31|
|Crucified with transgressors||Is.53:12||Acts 8:28-35|
|Buried with the rich||Is.53:9||Matt.27:57-60|
The above-mentioned prophecies are only a small sampling; in actual fact, Jesus Christ fulfilled well over a hundred prophecies in his first coming. In addition to the prophecies listed above which Christ fulfilled are the Old Testament prophecies that He would rise from the dead. In Psalm 16:10 David prophesies,
For Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Sheol; neither wilt Thou allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay.
The apostle Peter picks up this statement and uses it to prove that the Old Testament prophets spoke of the resurrection of Christ. He lifts up his voice and cries out to the Jewish throngs lining the streets of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost,
Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. And so, because he was a prophet... he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay. This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. Acts 2:29-32
Likewise the prophet Isaiah announced seven hundred years before Jesus was born,
But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. Isaiah 53:10
In this declaration the prophet first announces the Messiah's death by speaking of God crushing Him, putting Him to grief, and sacrificing Him as a guilt offering. Yet, right on the heels of this prediction of Messiah's death the prophet declares that He will see His offspring and prolong His days. Jesus never had any physical offspring. This prophecy can only have reference to the vast host of individuals who would become His spiritual offspring by faith that He would see after being raised from the dead and "prolonging His days." Again we see embedded in the ancient prophecies a clear prediction of Christ's resurrection. Now, if Christ fulfilled the other prophecies made about Him with one hundred percent accuracy (and He did), then when the Old Testament prophets predict His future resurrection, it should be the reasonable and rational thing to believe the same when His tomb is found empty.
Jesus' Miracles Give Credibility To His Resurrection
Not only is there strong evidence for Christ's resurrection from His own and the Old Testament prophets' predictions of the same, but the many mighty miracles He performed provide further support. A cursory reading of the four Biblical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) reveal that Jesus cleansed lepers, gave sight to the blind, unstopped the ears of the deaf, healed the lame, calmed the winds and the sea, multiplied food to feed great multitudes, walked on water, and raised the dead. These miraculous works give a great deal of credibility to His words. In fact Christ said Himself that these miracles proved He was who He claimed to be - the Son of God sent from the Father. He stated clearly as much in John 5:36 when He pointed out,
...the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish, the very works that I do, bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me. see also Jn.2:23; 10:25,38; 14:11; 15:24
In light of the fact that Christ's miracles give solid evidence that He was the only begotten Son of God sent from God the Father, should it be thought strange that He would rise from the dead? Admittedly, mere men do not rise from the dead, but we are speaking here of the Son of God and creator of the world (Jn.1:1-3)! In light of that fact, it would be thought strange if He didn't rise from the dead!
Eyewitnesses Saw And Announced His Resurrection
Finally, the most important positive evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the testimony of eyewitnesses who saw Him after He had risen. In a court of law, the independently confirmed testimonies of credible eyewitnesses are of the highest value in reaching a verdict. The Scriptures record that the risen Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene (Jn.20:14), the women returning from the tomb (Mt.28:9-10), Peter later in the day (Luke 24:34), the Emmaus disciples (Luke 24:13-33), the apostles with Thomas absent (Luke 24:36-43), the apostles with Thomas present (John 20:26-29), the seven by the Lake of Tiberias (John 21:1-23), a multitude of 500-plus believers on a Galilean mountain (1Cor.15:6), James (1Cor.15:7), the eleven (Matt.28:16-20), and those present at His ascension (Acts 1:3-12). After Jesus had ascended to heaven He appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:3-6), Stephen as he was being stoned to death (Acts 7:55), Paul in the temple (Acts 22:17-21), and to John on the island of Patmos (Rev.1:10-19). J. N. D. Anderson describes the force of the testimony of these eyewitnesses in the following words:
The most drastic way of dismissing the evidence would be to say that these stories were mere fabrications, that they were pure lies. But, so far as I know, not a single critic today would take such an attitude. In fact, it would really be an impossible position. Think of the number of witnesses, over 500. Think of the character of the witnesses, men and women who gave the world the highest ethical teaching it has ever known, and who even on the testimony of their enemies lived it out in their lives. Think of the psychological absurdity of picturing a little band of defeated cowards cowering in an upper room one day and a few days later transformed into a company that no persecution could silence - and then attempting to attribute this dramatic change to nothing more convincing than a miserable fabrication they were trying to foist upon the world. That simply wouldn't make sense.12
Furthermore, John Warwick Montgomery, in his book, History and Christianity, essentially states that when the disciples of Jesus proclaimed His resurrection, they did so to people who were alive during the time of the resurrection. He goes on to say that in 56 A.D. the apostle Paul wrote that over 500 people had seen Christ alive from the dead, and most of those were still alive. Thus, he concludes that it is inconceivable that the early disciples of Jesus could have devised a lie and then preached it to those who could easily refute it, simply by producing Jesus' body.13 For example, try to imagine a group of people who claimed that they had seen Martin Luther King, Jr. alive from the dead, and now had set out to convince their own generation of that fact. Let's take it one step further. Let's imagine that this small band of King devotees were able to convince an enormous number of people of his resurrection, so that a new movement was born which paid tribute to him, and spread virtually around the world. Does this sound absolutely unbelievable? Of course it does! Hopefully this illustrates how difficult it would have been for the early Christians to convince a large number of people in the first century that Christ had been raised from the dead, unless they had some very convincing evidence. We have been considering some of that evidence, and I believe the arguments are conclusive; the predictions of Christ Himself concerning His future resurrection, the prophecies He fulfilled, the miracles He performed, and the eyewitnesses who gave their independent testimonies of seeing Him alive from the dead all confirm that the tomb was empty because Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
If it is true that Jesus Christ did rise from the dead, what relevance does it have for our own lives? At the very least, it should convince us that if we can believe Jesus when He says the most unbelievable thing imaginable (that He would rise from the dead), surely we can believe Him when He speaks on other issues. This means that we can have confidence that Jesus spoke the truth when He stated who He was. In no uncertain terms, Christ claimed to be the Son of God and God the Son, co-equal to His Father (Jn.10:30; 8:58; 5:17-18). We can have confidence in His Word when He told His disciples that the only way for any man to get to God the Father was through Him (Jn.14:6). We can trust Him when He described the condition of all men as sinful and separated from God (Mt.7:11; Mk.10:18). Additionally, His word should be believed when it comes to His description of the future sinners will face if they reject God's only way of salvation. In many places Jesus stated that eternal misery in hell was the future doom of anyone who did not believe and follow Him (Jn.3:36; Mt.7:13-14; Mt.25:31-46). We can trust Jesus' word when He taught that the reason He came into the world was to die for sinners, paying the penalty for their sins so that they might be saved from the eternal hell that they justly deserved and be brought to everlasting happiness in heaven (Mt.26:28; 20:28; Luke 19:10). Finally, we can trust His word when He told us what man must do to be saved from the wrath of God. Jesus clearly taught that men must repent of their sin and believe in Him (Jn.3:16; 6:35,47; Luke 13:1-3; 24:46-47). If Jesus really did rise from the dead then it means that all men are sinners, under the wrath of God, and must flee in faith to Christ as their Savior and Lord to find salvation. I hope you see that the resurrection of Christ is not just an intellectual proposition that can be accepted or rejected without any serious implications! Rather, it has eternal ramifications for every man, woman, boy and girl. Now that you have seen that the resurrection of Christ is the most reasonable and rationale explanation for the empty tomb that can be offered, what will you do with Him? I plead with you to bow down before Him. Cast yourself upon His mercy. Confess your sin and rebellion. Receive the forgiveness He so freely and richly offers (John 3:16). Let the truth of the resurrection drive you into the arms of the great Savior of sinners - the Risen Christ!
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard version of the Bible
- Green, Michael. Man Alive (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968) 61.
- Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962) 173.
- Anderson, J. N. D. Christianity: The Witness of History, (Tyndale Press, 1970) 95-96.
- Green, Michael. Man Alive, 33
- Currie, George. The Military Discipline of the Romans from the Founding of the City to the Close of the Republic (An abstract of a thesis published under the auspices of the Graduate Council of Indiana University, 1928, 41-43.
- Anderson, J. N. D. "The Resurrection of Jesus Christ" (copyright). Christianity Today, March 29, 1968), 4-9.
- Little, Paul E. Know Why You Believe (Wheaton: Scripture Press Publications, Inc., 1967) 68.
- Stott, John R. W. Basic Christianity (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971) 57.
- Lewis, C. S. Miracles, A Preliminary Study (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947) 153.
- Smith, Wilbur M. Therefore Stand: Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965) 364.
- Anderson, J. N. D. "The Resurrection of Jesus Christ" (copyright). Christianity Today, March 29, 1968), 5-6.
- Montgomery, John Warwick. History and Christianity (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964) 78.