THE CASE FOR THE RESURRECTION, PARTS 1 and 2
PART 1 - DID JESUS REALLY DIE?
Ultimately, Christianity stands or falls on the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave. If this did not really happen, Christianity is a fraud, and the New Testament of the Bible was written by liars. Some have suggested that the Resurrection was only spiritual in nature, not physical, but that is most emphatically not what the Bible teaches. A single reading of I Corinthians 15 should make it crystal clear to anyone that the concept of a purely 'spiritual' Resurrection has no place in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's a physical Resurrection, or nothing at all.
The apparent dilemma that the sincerely seeking unbeliever in today's world can face is: how can we know whether or not Jesus really rose from the dead almost 2000 years after the fact? It often surprises people to learn that this question CAN be answered! All one need do is look carefully at the evidence, and the conclusion is inescapable. So this week and next, I will present the basic evidence for the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
First of all, there are some historical facts that are not in dispute, because they are confirmed by non-Biblical records from that time that have also survived. For example, we know that there really was a person known as Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in the Holy Land about 2000 years ago. He was accepted by many as a prophet of God, and it was reported by many that he frequently performed miracles. After three years of public ministry, he was arrested, convicted and crucified.
We also know that at the same time there was a Roman governor of that region named Pontius Pilate. Pilate's reign as governor was tumultuous, and at the time the case of Jesus of Nazareth came before him, he was at the point where one more serious problem would result in his being removed from office and sent back to Rome in disgrace, probably to be executed by beheading.
Another known fact is that crucifixion was the standard form of execution in the Roman Empire for non-Roman citizens. There were groups of Roman soldiers who routinely carried out crucifixions. They were used to dealing death, and knew a dead body when they examined one.
Finally, there is the matter of Jesus' followers. We know that after the death of their leader, they first hid in fear. Before long, however, they were boldly proclaiming Jesus as having been raised from the dead, and most of them eventually chose to be killed rather than deny the Resurrection to be true. They founded the Christian movement that still exists today.
As I said, these are undisputed historical facts. We will begin with these, and use Bible passages to amplify these facts where appropriate.
Now, if someone is going to rise from the dead, there is one necessary prerequisite: that person must have died. So before we can discuss whether Jesus rose from the dead, we must establish that He did, in fact, die. This is required in this discussion because one of the theories that has been put forth to explain the events of the first Holy Week is that Jesus actually survived his crucifixion. This is known as the 'Swoon Theory', 'swoon' being another word for 'faint'. What this theory proposes is that Jesus only appeared to be dead, was taken down from the cross still alive, and in the coolness of the tomb revived sufficiently to enable him to eventually appear to his followers, thus starting the idea that he had risen from the dead.
There are many problems with this idea. The first is that, as previously stated, crucifixion was the standard form of execution in the Roman Empire for non-Romans. The soldiers in charge of Jesus' crucifixion had done executions many times before, and knew when someone was dead. When there was any question, they broke the legs of the victim, which caused death quickly by preventing him from pushing himself up with his feet, which is the only way the victim of crucifixion can breathe. The Bible tells us that the soldiers broke the legs of the other two men crucified with Jesus, but did not break Jesus' legs. They were fully satisfied that he was already dead. Had there been the slightest question, they would have gone ahead with the leg-breaking.
The precarious position of Pontius Pilate also witnesses against the Swoon Theory. Pilate put Jesus to death under protest, because knowingly executing an innocent person could be grounds for his removal from office. Eventually he capitulated to the crowd to stop a riot from occurring, because this posed an even greater threat to his job, and perhaps his life. Having made this decision, Pilate wanted to make sure that Jesus was gone for good. He would not have released Jesus' body to be buried without making absolutely sure that he was dead. In fact, Mark's account of the crucifixion tells us that he did exactly that. When Pilate heard that Jesus was dead, he sent for the centurion, the soldier in charge of the crucifixion party. Only when the centurion had assured him that Jesus was absolutely, indisputably dead was the body released to Joseph of Arimathea.
The burial of Jesus also causes problems for the Swoon Theory. He was wrapped in a shroud and buried by people who believed in him, namely Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (John 19), with several of the female disciples looking on (Luke 23). If there had been the slightest sign of life in that body, that burial would never have occurred. They would have instead taken him away and attempted to nurse him back to health. But he was, in fact, sealed in the tomb, because he was unquestionably dead.
Even if, for the sake of argument, we allow the possibility that Jesus did survive his crucifixion, he still would have had only three days to recover sufficiently to roll away the huge sealed stone, then overpower a group of Roman guards (who were some of the finest soldiers who have ever lived) to make his escape. Even if THAT could somehow have happened, the man who would have subsequently appeared to his followers would not have looked anything like someone who had been miraculously raised from death. He would have looked like someone who desperately needed LOTS of medical attention. Not the kind of appearance that would launch a religious movement that still exists today.
As one final note, John tells us that although the soldiers did not break Jesus' legs, one of them thrust a spear into his side, and out of that wound poured water and blood. Doctors who have considered this have come to the conclusion that such an event could only occur as a result of the heart having split open, with sufficient time having passed since death to allow the red blood cells to begin separating from the clear serum. Quite simply, God the Son literally died of a broken heart.
There can be no question that Jesus of Nazareth did, in fact, die on that cross. All the evidence points to this fact. No evidence whatsoever supports the contrary view. It's merely wishful thinking by some non-Christians who want to knock the legs out from under the Christian faith. It's interesting that these unbelievers can clearly see what some 'believers' apparently can't: that the lack of a bodily Resurrection from death is fatal to Christianity.
PART 2 - DID JESUS REALLY RISE FROM THE DEAD?
Having established that Jesus did, in fact die, we now come to the question: Did He really rise from the dead? Let us begin our examination of this question by establishing that the body of Jesus was, indeed, gone from the tomb on that first Easter morning.
Another theory that has been put forth to explain (or more properly, to explain away) the Empty Tomb is the 'Wrong Tomb Theory'. This suggests that on that fateful morning, the women, confused by their grief, went to a different tomb than the one Jesus had actually been placed in, a tomb that was still unused. The story that Jesus had risen was then started by the women, and it spread until the Christian Church had been formed on the basis of it.
There is one primary and fatal problem with this scenario: the enemies of Jesus, both Jewish and Roman, knew where the RIGHT tomb was. Matthew 28 tells us that the Pharisees went to Pilate after Jesus' death and burial, and informed him that Jesus had told his followers that on the third day after being killed, He would rise again. Pilate, you recall, had allowed Jesus to be killed to stop a riot that would almost certainly have ended his governorship, and probably his life. Having taken such action, Pilate wanted to be rid of Jesus once and for all. The VERY LAST THING Pilate would ever have wanted to happen was for a story about a raised Jesus to start bringing back all that controversy and violence. So he gave the Pharisees a guard of his soldiers, and they sealed the tomb and guarded it. (It's not credible, by the way, to suggest that both the Romans and the Pharisees would have cared so much about preventing Resurrection stories from starting, and then been so sloppy as to seal the wrong tomb. They certainly would have checked carefully to make sure that the late Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, the occupant of the tomb they were sealing.)
So, if the women had gone to the wrong tomb and begun to proclaim Jesus as having been raised, all the Pharisees and Romans would have had to do was go to the RIGHT tomb, bring out the body and parade it through the streets for a while. Christianity would have died before it had even gotten started.
There can be no question, therefore, that it was the right tomb that was empty on that first Easter. So, the final question to be addressed is: What happened to the body?
The most popular 'explanation' for the empty tomb, of course, has always been the story told by the Roman guards who had been at the tomb: 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.' This story, however, lacks credibility on multiple points. First of all, there's the matter of the harsh discipline that was enforced in the Roman army. Failure to carry out an assigned duty was punishable by death. Falling asleep on duty would surely have carried this penalty. Also, the guards would certainly have been sternly warned that under no circumstances was anyone to be allowed in or out of that tomb until the fourth day. This was absolutely crucial to stopping any 'raising from the dead' stories from ever getting started. (Once the fourth day arrived, of course, the prediction of Jesus would be shown to be untrue, and guarding the tomb would become unnecessary.) These guards would have been assured in no uncertain terms that failure to keep the tomb secure would most certainly result in their deaths.
But even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that the guards had fallen asleep, how in the world could the disciples have broken the seal, moved the heavy stone away and removed the body without at least one of the guards waking up? Extremely unlikely at best. However, there's a much more basic flaw with the guards' story. Read their official statement again, and think about it: 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.'
Do you see the problem? It's simply this: if they were asleep, HOW COULD THEY KNOW WHAT HAPPENED? For all they knew, it could have been a miraculous Resurrection that they slept through, instead of a grave robbing. The truth, of course, is that the guards didn't fall asleep. Not, that is, until they saw the angel rolling away the stone. Matthew tells us that after the tomb was discovered to be empty, the Pharisees gave the guards a large amount of money to tell the story about falling asleep, and promised that if Pilate heard about it, they would keep the guards out of trouble. It would have to have been a large amount, because the soldiers were taking a big risk by telling this story: they were publicly admitting to a capital offense. The 'trouble' the Pharisees promised to keep them out of was being beheaded with a sword. If the guards were going to make up their own story about what happened, why would they use one that could cost them their lives? Lots of money seems like the only logical reason for them to have done what they did, which confirms that it was not their own story at all, and therefore false.
There's one more thing to be considered, and that's the sudden change in the behavior of Jesus' closest followers. After the death of their leader, the disciples hid themselves in fear. Soon, however, they were proclaiming a risen Jesus, and eventually most of them accepted death rather than renounce this belief. If the guards' story were true, it would mean these men gave their lives for something they knew to be a lie. I don't know about you, but I certainly wouldn't do that. The only thing that adequately explains what happened is that the disciples saw the risen Jesus for themselves, and thus knew for certain that he was, indeed, alive again.
As with the death of Jesus, all the available evidence, historical and logical, points toward the accuracy of the Biblical accounts of the Resurrection. The truth is clear: Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, and on the third day was miraculously raised from death. There is no other explanation that is anywhere close to being consistent with the facts. Anyone who chooses to reject the Resurrection of Jesus must ignore all those facts to do so.
Skeptics sometimes ask how it is possible to know that Jesus' death 2000 years ago can forgive our sins now. Indeed there is no way to directly prove that. HOWEVER, Jesus spoke repeatedly, before the fact, of both His death AND His Resurrection. We've seen now how Jesus' physical Resurrection is a matter of logical necessity based on known historical facts. If what Jesus said about His Resurrecton is therefore demonstrably true, this implies that what He said about His sacrificial death is also true. They go hand in hand, and the truth of one establishes the truth of the other!
So believe in the Lord Jesus, and give Him honor and praise! For He is risen, indeed!
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