WHAT HAPPENED THAT SUNDAY?
If God created the universe and has plans for humanity, He’s got to tell us what they are. The most effective way to reach the most people is to do so in writing to preserve His message. But how can we know that a particular message is from God? Miraculous authentication. We would expect God so to show that a particular message was really from Him by doing something only God could do. A miracle doesn’t seem like an unreasonable requirement for someone who can create the universe out of nothing.
Of course, most religions in the world claim miracles, but Christianity is in a privileged position. First, by describing God as we have, all of the world’s religions are eliminated from the beginning if they don’t get that much right. All of the ancient polytheistic religions (i.e. Greeks, Romans, Norse, etc.) and the Eastern religions (i.e. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, etc.) either make the universe eternal (for which we have no evidence at all and is impossible) or make the universe equivalent to the creator (which becomes logically impossible if the universe had a beginning). The only options left are Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The biggest miracle within Islam is the creation of the Koran itself by an uneducated man. Based on our definition of a miracle (something only God could do), we can safely dismiss that – there are numerous books on Amazon by uneducated people that show some measure of wisdom. Since Christianity grew out of Judaism, any miracles for Judaism count for Christianity as well. Christianity, on the other hand, puts all its money on one miracle – the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christianity shares the same fate of its founder any way you look at it.
This brings us to the elephant in the room. What happened that first Sunday? What happened to Jesus on the cross? What happened to the body? What did people see afterwards that made them think Jesus had risen from the dead?
A BARE BONES APPROACH
We don’t want to presume too much. It wouldn’t be fair to say that we can unquestionably use the Bible as a reliable source. That would be stacking the deck in our favor too much. After all, there are other ancient sources that are relevant to the discussion. So we’re going to go in the opposite direction. Instead of taking any and all evidence that might possibly support the resurrection, we’re only going to use the least controversial, most widely accepted evidence. This is where we turn to:
3 I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, 4 he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. 5 He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve, 6 and then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at once—most of them are still alive to this day, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time. I Corinthians 15:3-8
I know what you’re thinking. “But that’s the Bible! Is that fair, using the Bible to authenticate itself?” If the passage in question was reasonably in question, that would be a valid point. However, New Testament scholars and historians of all types agree that this passage is authentic. While that doesn’t mean it’s true, it does mean that the information presented was from an early and reliable source. Why do I think this is authentic? First, the Jesus Seminar is a group of people that has voted on the authenticity of the majority of New Testament passages using criteria that are stacked against traditional Christianity, and this passage achieved their highest rating for authenticity. Second, considering who this passage is attributed to (the apostle Paul), comparing it to the book of Acts, and seeing how it is structured and translates, it is likely the meat of this passage (from 3a to 7) was developed as early as within 5 years of Jesus execution. Considering that there is little doubt that many people associated with Jesus’ ministry (both supporters and detractors) were known to be alive as late as the mid 60’s A.D., they would have been around to confirm or deny these claims. What are the basic claims of this passage?
Jesus was killed on a cross (that was the only way to legally execute someone, so it goes without saying – the cross just wasn’t a good fit for the poetic device used)
Where Jesus’ body was laid to rest was noted (and presumably absent afterward)
Various people, both friends, enemies and strangers experienced what they thought was the risen Jesus.
That is the basic information. What explanation best accounts for these three points?
The most popular version of this theory was that Jesus, due to blood loss and dehydration, passed out on the cross. When he was buried in the tomb, the cool air resuscitated him. He got up, exited the tomb, and appeared to his disciples as the risen Messiah.
Let’s set aside my personal dislike of theories originating during the 19th century in which everyone seemed to pass out because of emotional distress. (That’s just a stupid, overused device by Victorian era writers with no imagination, but I digress.) Instead, let’s see how it matches up with the known evidence. Why would people think Jesus had died on the cross rather than just passed out? There are no known instances of people surviving crucifixion. The process is one in which a person painfully asphyxiates. Once someone dies of asphyxiation, typically they don’t start breathing again without help. There is no known evidence to suggest any was offered. In fact, the only known evidence of their interaction was that a Roman ran his spear into Jesus side to make sure he was dead. (In fact, forensic pathologists have determined that Jesus had died of a ruptured heart based on the Biblical evidence). Additionally, it is known that Romans were there to make sure that no help was given. The Romans on site were tasked with making sure those crucified were dead. Failure to do their duty came with some harsh penalties, including the possibility of death. It seems unlikely they would have risked their lives for Jewish rabble such as Jesus.
What about his burial? Suffice it to say, there are a couple of theories that relate to this. If Jesus was buried in a tomb as the Bible depicts, a cool tomb isn’t conducive to resuscitating a weakened person. He’s still got blood loss and dehydration. Without addressing those issues, it really doesn’t matter how comfortable a tomb is. Of course, there are other issues (how would Jesus get out of the tomb or passed the guards?), but we can set those aside for now. Another theory about Jesus’ burial was that his body was dumped in a common grave rather than in a tomb. This is unlikely for a few reasons. First, if he was dumped in a common grave, it would have been subject to the elements, not to mention carrion feeding animals. Is it likely that Jesus’ disciples would have left it there to be mutilated, considering the very common and accepted practice of the time was to honor one’s deceased teacher with a burial site shrine? Seems odd by its omission. Of course, one could argue that the Romans placed a guard at the common grave to prevent this. However, the problem is that there is no evidence for this order, or even for the order that the body be placed in a common grave. The only evidence is conjecture by those that wish to deny the validity of the New Testament narrative. That’s not evidence – that’s wishful thinking.
What about the post-resurrection appearances? There is no doubt that many of Jesus followers didn’t want him to be dead. Anyone who loses someone close feels that way. But that doesn’t explain why so many thought they saw Jesus after he died. If he had just passed out, when they saw him, they wouldn’t have thought, “This is the Messiah who defeated death!” They would have thought, “Get this guy a medic!” Even if they did reach the wrong conclusion, would it be in character for Jesus to perpetrate such a fraud? Wasn’t this a guy that, as far as anyone can tell, was the height of moral perfection? To suggest he knowingly faked his resurrection seems completely inconsistent with everything we know about him. “What if, rather than trick his followers, Jesus was honest, but Jesus’ followers lied and said he was resurrected after he eventually died?” First, there is no evidence anywhere of another account of Jesus’ death. At all. So the circumstances for this simply don’t exist except as a thought experiment. Second, the question assumes Jesus’ followers had something to gain by such a lie. What they gained, largely, was being outcast from their communities, scapegoated by the authorities, and ultimately martyred for their faith. People may die for a lie that they believe is true, but they don’t die for what they know to be lies. Additionally, we still have no idea why James (Jesus’ half-brother who tried to get him out of the ministry) and Paul (who was actively incarcerating Jesus’ followers) would believe such post-resurrection appearances.
The swoon theory denies Jesus’ death, the circumstances of his burial don’t show any reason to help his medical condition, and appearances of Jesus after his burial seem very inconsistent with someone who had just inexplicably survived Roman crucifixion. Fortunately, both secular and Christian scholars alike put this theory to rest a long time ago. Perhaps there is a better explanation.
Okay, Jesus really died. However, someone moved the body. It may have been one or more of Jesus’ followers. It might have been the authorities. It could have even been his own family. In any case, Jesus died and was buried, but he didn’t stay buried even though he stayed dead.
This was a good idea to start with, especially since it’s the earliest recorded explanation that was offered to counter the resurrection (Matthew 28:11-15). It takes seriously Jesus’ death. However, when it comes to who would benefit from Jesus’ body missing, we end up with a problem:
Jesus immediate disciples: they get to be kicked out of the Temple (the only source for salvation among the Jews) and then get to die as martyrs in the Roman empire.The
Pharisees: a missing body would encourage Jesus’ followers, not discourage them.The
Sadducees: a missing body would undermine the acceptance of their fundamental beliefs.
The Romans: a missing body would encourage Jesus’ followers, destabilizing an already volatile region of the Empire.
Jesus’ family: the most they get is the knowledge that Jesus was given a private burial by his family.
Looking at this, it seems that Jesus’ family would be the most likely suspect for stealing the body. However, it would seem odd, once again, for the family that produced a moral teacher such as Jesus to perpetrate a grand fraud. It is a matter of record that James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, was the half-brother of Jesus. Would he encourage the idea that Jesus rose from the dead, the central tenant of the Christian church, if he knew that Jesus was buried in a secret family grave somewhere? Never mind that there is literally no evidence for such a claim, what about the fact that James, by his silence, was encouraging and facilitating eternal damnation for the Jewish followers who were cast out of the temple for following Jesus? According to Judaism at the time, there was no other guaranteed way to cover one’s sins aside from temple sacrifices. If you couldn’t get into the temple, tough luck. Does that sound likely, that someone would trick people out of the chance at heaven? Of course, there’s one other problem: what did all those people who claimed to see the risen Jesus really see? Especially James, who knew where the body was? This theory has severe problems.
Another theory has suggested that, while Jesus did die on the cross and was buried (whether in a tomb or in a common grave doesn’t matter), Jesus’ followers couldn’t accept the fact that their rabbi had died. They individually and collectively began to hallucinate, seeing their rabbi as a resurrected Messiah. They were so certain of these hallucinations that they were willing to risk being cast out of the temple and dying martyrs’ deaths at the hands of the Roman empire.
This sort of theory can work up to a point. Let’s set aside for now the fact that there would still be a corpse which the authorities could point to (assuming the body was in a tomb or before scavengers got to it if in a common grave). The theory relies on an understanding o hallucinations which goes against how hallucinations typically occur. For example:
Hallucinations occur among those that expect them. The biblical data states that Jesus’ immediate followers had no expectation that He would rise from the dead. If there is no expectation, there should be no hallucination. This also doesn’t account for the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus to his half-brother James or to Paul.
Hallucinations are individual experiences. While hallucinations commonly occur to individuals (they are radically subjective), they are not known to occur to groups of people. The passage in Corinthians, as well as passages in the Gospels, make it clear that such appearances occurred almost exclusively among groups of people.
Hallucinations typically affect only one sense. That is, a person having a hallucination might see something or hear something, but usually not both. The post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus were clearly multisensory, from both the Gospels and the epistles (particularly I John 1:1-3).
While it is logically possible for what those that claimed to have seen the risen Jesus all to have hallucinatory experiences, it is unlikely as they would be unlike the hallucinatory experiences modern science is familiar with. Such a theory is therefore special pleading at best.
Each of the above theories fails to account for either the fact that Jesus had died, was buried, or was seen after his death, apparently alive and well. There are other theories that have been offered, but they suffer from the same issues. They simply fail to account for the evidence which all but the most opposed critics accept. The only theory which accounts for all of the accepted facts and takes into account the cultural and historical context is the theory which Christians have been holding for almost 2,000 years – Jesus rose from the dead.
If God (an eternal, powerful, intelligent person) created the universe and people for a purpose and those people are broken and not fulfilling that purpose, the only way those people can get fixed is if God tells them how. If God is willing to tell us, then He has to verify His message by doing something only God could do, like a miracle. Rising from the dead seems like a good candidate for such verification. If these premises are true and the reasoning is sound, there is only one question left – what will you do in light of it?
Jesus and the Gurus – STR article
The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus – Reasonable Faith article
The Resurrection – STR article
The Resurrection: An Impact Event Cross Examined (Dr. Frank Turek) article
Investigating Easter: Is The Resurrection A Late Legend? – Cold Case Christianity (Jim Wallace) article