He Is Not Here!
All four Gospels tell the same story. Jesus died on the cross. A man named Joseph of Arimathea was given permission to bury him. His body was taken down from the cross. It was wrapped in linen cloths and placed in a stone tomb not far from where he was executed.
Here is the way Mark tells us what happened next:
After the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James bought some spices to put on Jesus’ body. Very early on Sunday morning, just as the sun was coming up, they went to the tomb. On their way, they were asking one another, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance for us?’ But when they looked, they saw that the stone had already been rolled away. And it was a huge stone! The women went into the tomb, and on the right side they saw a young man in a white robe sitting there. They were alarmed. The man said, ‘Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus from Nazareth, who was nailed to a cross. God has raised him to life, and he isn’t here. You can see the place where they put his body. Now go and tell his disciples, and especially Peter, that he will go ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.’ (Mark 16:1–7)
‘God has raised him to life. He isn’t here.’ Those must be some of the most earth-shattering words ever spoken. The dead man’s body was missing – not because it had been stolen, but because he had been raised to life!
Fact or History?
Some people dismiss these stories as made-up fiction. I can certainly understand where they are coming from. People don’t often come back to life again after they have died!
Still, I am convinced that these stories are not fairytales. They tell us about events that really happened. They belong in the non-fiction section of the library. They are history.
There is a lot that could be said about this, but here I just want to give you an explanation for why I am convinced (along with millions of Christians around the world) that Jesus rose from the dead. I can’t prove it, of course, at least not in the same way as we can prove things with science. I can prove to you, for example, that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius under certain atmospheric conditions, because I can repeat it over and over again. But ancient history doesn’t work like that. We can’t repeat the events to prove they happened. All we can do is make a judgement based on the evidence. In the next couple of sections, I simply want to lay out the evidence and examine some of the explanations for it. I hope that, like me, you will become convinced that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
Five pieces of evidence are important.
An Empty Tomb
First, it’s certain that Jesus’ tomb was empty. All four Gospels tell us this piece of information. And as soon as you think about it for a minute, you realise that there is no reason to doubt that this is true. The early Christians caused quite a stir with their claim that Jesus had come back to life. There were plenty of people who would have loved to point to Jesus’ dead body to show that the Christians were mistaken. If there had still been a body in the tomb, it would have been easy for the authorities to pull it out and parade it through the streets to show people that yes, Jesus was still dead. The Christian faith would have been dead in the water before it had even really begun. The fact this never happened makes it clear that the body was missing. The tomb was empty.
A Visible, Touchable Jesus
Second, there is no doubt that the earliest Christians were convinced that they had seen Jesus alive again. We have the books they wrote – not only the four Gospels, but also many of the other books in the New Testament. Over and over again in these books, the early Christians claim that they saw Jesus alive again after his death. In fact, we have more written references to Jesus’ resurrection than to almost any other event in the ancient world!
Many of these references to Jesus’ resurrection are relatively brief. But each of the four Gospels tells the story of the empty tomb, and three of them – Matthew, Luke and John – describe how Jesus appeared to his disciples again after his death. It is clear in these accounts that the earliest Christians did not claim to have seen a ‘ghost’ or a ‘spirit’ when they saw Jesus alive again. The Gospels include stories about how the disciples touched him, ate with him and listened to him speak (Matthew 28; Luke 24; John 20–21). They make it crystal clear that Jesus had come back to life in his body!
What’s more, the early Christian reports indicate that many people saw Jesus alive like this. In one of the books in the New Testament – Paul’s first letter to the Christians in a Greek city called Corinth – Paul claims that not only he, but 500 people, all gathered together at the same time saw Jesus alive again (1 Corinthians 15:6)!
Authentic Sources: The Embarrassment Factor
Third, the resurrection stories in the Gospels bear all the hallmarks of real eyewitness accounts.
For one thing, all four Gospels tell the story of the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances, but they each include different details. This is exactly what we expect from real eyewitness accounts.
What’s more, in a male-dominated culture, the Gospels record the potentially embarrassing detail that it was womenwho saw Jesus first. The early Christians knew, of course, that in their culture, the testimony of women wouldn’t stand up in court. So why would they have kept that part in the story unless it was true?
Like the Gospels as a whole, the resurrection stories bear all the hallmarks of a genuine eyewitness account.
Transformed Disciples: Who’d Die For A Lie?
Fourth, nearly all of Jesus’ first disciples ended up being persecuted for their faith. They went around telling everyone this remarkable story about Jesus being raised from the dead, and they were persecuted for it. And when I say persecuted, I don’t mean that somebody called them names. No. Jesus’ disciple James was beheaded by one of the Herods. Peter was crucified in Rome. The other James – Jesus’ half-brother – was stoned to death. None of this is pretty, I know, but the point is simple: if these friends and family of Jesus knew that he had not come back to life again, why would they die for a lie? In terms of life in this world, they had nothing to gain and everything to lose from their claim that Jesus was alive again. Why would they spend their whole lives telling the story of Jesus’ resurrection, and then give up their lives for it, if they knew it wasn’t true?
A Worldwide Movement
Finally, we’ve got to somehow explain how Christianity started in the first place. When Jesus died, all of his friends and family fled. That’s no wonder: their lives were probably in danger too. So why did they regather? How did they regain their confidence? Why did they start telling this story about Jesus coming back to life again? And above all, why did they start saying that Jesus rules the world? Everyone knew he had been executed. Only a lunatic would claim that an executed dead man now rules the world. Surely the most sensible option would have been to give up on Jesus altogether and get on with life. But none of them did that. Rather, they devoted the rest of their lives to promoting the message about Jesus. And when they explained why they were doing it, they said it was because Jesus rose from the dead. From a purely historical point of view, we’ve got to explain how Christianity grew from one man dying on a cross to be a worldwide movement within the space of a couple of centuries. The explanation the earliest Christians gave for this was that Jesus was no longer dead.
None of this so far is religious belief. This is simply good historical logic based on the evidence. That is why most serious ancient historians, even those who don’t profess Christian faith, accept that the tomb was empty, the earliest Christians claimed to have seen Jesus alive and Christianity grew because people believed their story.
Over the centuries, people have come up with all sorts of alternative explanations for what happened on that Sunday morning when the earliest Christians claimed that Jesus had come back to life. But none of these explanations can do justice to the evidence. Let me show you the problems with just some of the most popular ones.
- ‘People were gullible back then’:One explanation is that people in the ancient world were gullible; they easily believed miracle stories. The problem is that this simply isn’t true. Although many people did believe the testimony of those who saw Jesus alive again, many others didn’t. It doesn’t take modern science to understand the reality of death. People in the ancient world knew just as well as you and I do that dead people stay dead.
- ‘The telephone game’: This explanation suggests that the whole story about the resurrection was a myth that developed over time. One person told another, and as the story was passed down the line, like in ‘the telephone game’, the legend grew. But this doesn’t fit the evidence. Within weeks of Jesus’ execution, the earliest Christians were announcing in public that he had risen from the dead. We have written accounts making the same claim from within 20 years of the crucifixion (I’m talking about the letters of Paul in the New Testament). The Christian stories about the resurrection are not a case of ‘the telephone game’.
- ‘The disciples stole the body and invented the story’:The idea here is that the disciples stole the body from the tomb, hid it and then made up the story about Jesus coming back to life. But this would have been a strange story to make up because no-one in the surrounding culture would have been able to make sense of it. On the one hand, the ancient Greeks were sure that the dead don’t rise. The Greeks commonly saw their bodies as a prison to escape from, so the idea of coming back to life again in a body was foreign to them. On the other hand, the ancient Jews also didn’t expect the resurrection of one man in the middle of history. Some Jews did look forward the resurrection of everyone at the end of history. But the early Christian testimony that Jesus had risen, on his own, ahead of everyone else, would have struck most Jews as very strange. It is therefore highly unlikely that the disciples simply invented this story. It simply didn’t make sense to the world around them. Besides, even if they did steal the body and invent the story, we’ve still got to explain why they were willing to die for this lie.
- ‘The Jewish authorities stole the body’:This one is even less likely. There is no good reason to explain why the Jewish leaders would have stolen the body of a man they had happily executed. More to the point, once the earliest Christians started claiming that Jesus had risen, the Jewish authorities would surely have produced the body, if they had it, to prove the Christians wrong.
- ‘The disciples hallucinated’:I almost didn’t include this one because it is so far-fetched. Hallucination is an individual thing. It is highly unlikely, to say the least, that all the earliest Christians had the same hallucination. What’s more, when you remember that the resurrection of one man in the middle of history was a very strange idea to everyone at the time, you’ve got to ask where such a weird hallucination could have come from.
None of these alternative explanations can do the job. But we still need an explanation for the evidence. Why was the tomb empty? Why did the earliest Christians claim so consistently and passionately that Jesus had come back to life? The best explanation is also the simplest: the early Christians claimed that Jesus was alive because he really had risen from the dead.
THE BOTTOM LINE
None of this evidence ‘proves’, in the scientific sense, that Jesus rose from the dead. But it does provide a strong historical case for the Christian claim.
The bottom line, however, is that whatever you believe about Jesus’ resurrection probably has as much to do with your basic beliefs about God and the world as it has to do with the evidence. If you don’t think God is real, the story about Jesus coming back to life again will seem ridiculous. But if you’ve read this far, you probably have at least some sense that God is real. And if this is the case; if the God Jesus spoke about is really there, if he made the universe out of nothing and sustains it every day, then surely it is also possible that God raised Jesus from the dead.
But what is even more of an important question; If Jesus did come back from the dead, what difference does it make? What does it mean? Why does it matter?
This article was originally published by Bible Society Australia.