The Case for Christianity

Part 4

Who is Jesus?

His Resurrection

Introduction

In our last newsletter, I began the task of examining the historical evidence surrounding Jesus of Nazareth in order to argue that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus is indeed who He claimed to be. My examination looked at the famous Lord, Liar, Lunatic argument and the Sages argument. In this issue, I want to examine the evidence surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus. By way of introduction to the topic of Jesus' resurrection, let me repeat my preliminary remarks from last month and move into the specific details in support of the conclusion that a resurrection from the dead is the only tenable explanation for these two substantiated facts from history: Jesus died and His tomb was found empty.

The Resurrection

No doubt the most famous aspect of the life of Jesus of Nazareth is His resurrection from the dead. In His resurrection, Jesus stands apart from all the gods and goddesses that mankind in its futility has conjured up.[1] Far from being merely something that others have claimed about Him, Jesus of Nazareth predicted and accomplished His own resurrection from the dead.[2] In our claim that Jesus rose from the dead, we as Christians are not merely speaking metaphorically. By resurrection, we do not mean that Jesus rose "spiritually", nor merely that the memory of Jesus lives on in the hearts of His followers or in the continuance of His cause. Nor are we merely acknowledging His influence upon history. The doctrine of the resurrection proclaims that the literal, physical body of Jesus came back to life. But it is not a mere resuscitation. His body was raised glorified, albeit still physical.[3]

Many have claimed that the Christian doctrine that Jesus rose from the dead is too fantastic to be true.[4] Interestingly, it is the resurrection of Jesus, more than virtually any other event in the Bible, that has led people to conversion when they have sought to analyze it historically.[5] The accounts of the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament have been subjected to rigorous historical analysis more than probably any other aspect of the Bible. What exactly, then, have these historical analyses revealed about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus?

Jesus Died

The first important point of evidence for Jesus' resurrection from the dead is the fact that He really died. The infamous "swoon theory", the claim that Jesus did not die but merely swooned it, is at odds with the evidence. Given the nature of crucifixion, there can be no doubt that Jesus died as a result of all that happened to Him. An article from the Journal of the American Medical Association explains in medical detail what takes place when one is crucified.[6] The crucifixion of Jesus included a flogging, followed by being nailed through the wrists and feet.[7]

According to the article, a number of things were contributing factors to Jesus' death. Without listing the intense details, let their concluding words suffice.

Thus, it remains unsettled whether Jesus died of cardiac rupture or of cardiorespiratory failure. However, the important feature may be not how he died but rather whether he died. Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumptions that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.[8]

According to the historical evidence, Jesus' side was pierced with a sword,[9] Pilate made sure that Jesus was dead,[10] His body was anointed with one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes,[11] and placed in a tomb hewn out of rock and sealed with a large stone.[12] In addition, a guard was placed at the tomb to prevent the disciples from stealing the body.[13] Thus, it is indisputable that Jesus of Nazareth indeed died.

His Tomb Was Found Empty

The second important point of evidence for Jesus' resurrection from the dead is the fact that His tomb was found empty. The crux of our argument for the resurrection lies in the fact that no better explanation for the empty tomb exists than a resurrection from the dead. Thus, I will try to answer the objections against our position by showing why no other explanation for the empty tomb is satisfactory.

Objection One: Was the tomb really empty?

Obviously, the first objection that can be made is to simply deny that the tomb was found empty. Besides the substantiated historical testimony that indeed the tomb was empty, those who would suggest that Jesus' body remained in the tomb are hard pressed to explain two things. First, even the enemies of the Christians never disputed their claim that the tomb was found empty. All they tried to do was explain why it was empty.[14]

Second, if Jesus'body remained in the tomb then why did the enemies of the Christians not produce the body, since they were all too happy to be able to dispel the claims that Jesus had risen from the dead. If the Christians were going around proclaiming Jesus' resurrection from the dead then all the enemies had to do was to direct everyone's attention to the tomb where His body lay.

Objection Two: Could the body have been stolen?

A second objection that attempts to explain the empty tomb is that the body was stolen. There were only three groups who could have stolen the body; the disciples, the Jews, or the Romans. I suggest that it is untenable that any of these could or would have stolen the body. The historical evidence indicates that the disciples had all fled at Jesus' arrest.[15] Being in fear of arrest themselves, it is unlikely that they would have risked stealing Jesus' body. In addition, the disciples could not have gotten past the guard that had been set up to watch the tomb. Lastly, it is clear from what followed in next few years that the disciples believed that Jesus had risen from the dead. Even if one wanted to deny the reality of Jesus' resurrection from the dead, there can be no doubt that Jesus' disciples affirmed it, even to the point of death. Thus, since the disciples most certainly believed that Jesus had risen from the dead then it is impossible that they were the one who could have stolen the body.

It is equally untenable that the Jews could have stolen the body. First, the Jews never disputed the empty tomb, but merely sought to explain it in some other way than a resurrection. Second, if the Jews had stolen the body, then it would have been easy to prove that Jesus had not risen from the dead by simply producing the body for the public. The Jews had a vested interest in disproving the resurrection, but were not able to do so since they did not know where the body was.

The only other group that could have stolen the body is the Romans. However, it is also untenable that the Romans stole the body for similar reasons as the Jews. The Romans likewise had a vested interested in quelling the "rumors" that Jesus had risen from the dead. It was their commitment to Jesus' resurrection which bound the Christians together as a movement, presenting itself, at least in the eyes of the Roman empire, as a social threat to Rome's authority. Thus, the Romans would have most certainly produced the body publicly to prove that Jesus had not risen from the dead. Since there is not a likely candidate to blame for a stolen body, then it is not reasonable to believe that Jesus' tomb was found empty because the body was stolen.

Objection Three: Could the body have just disappeared?

There may be some who would suggest that the empty tomb is unexplainable because the body of Jesus simply disappeared for reasons unknown. It must be pointed out, however, that this is not so much an objection to our claim that Jesus rose from the dead as it is a failure to respond at all. In addition, this pseudoexplanation is untenable for other reasons that we will see in a moment. For others, the claim that Jesus' body disappeared might be explained as a dematerialization. It may sound on the surface as an ad hoc explanation[16] for the missing tomb, but the notion that the body of Jesus simply dematerialized is a legitimate suggestion in certain circles, particularly among occultists and New Agers.[17] It is not outrageous, within the occult world view, to claim that a body could or would disappear after death. Indeed, according to some in the New Age movement, for one who had achieved the level of enlightenment that Jesus was supposed to have achieved, a transformation from material to immaterial is what one should expect. In New Age doctrine, the empty tomb was an indication that Jesus was transformed into a higher, immaterial plane of existence which indicated that he had become an Ascended Master.

We saw this concept vividly illustrated in the popular movie series Star Wars. Though couched in a science fiction setting, the world view of Star Warv should have been familiar to anyone informed about the New Age movement or the occult.[18] In the first movie, Star Wars: A New Hope, Obi Wan Kenobi's body suddenly dematerialized as he gave up his life in his fight with Darth Vader. In the second movie, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda's body dematerialized at his death after his conversation with Luke. In the third movie, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader's body dematerialized just before Luke dragged Darth's suit into his space ship and escaped the doomed Death Star.[19] Thus, some New Agers or occultists would argue that the tomb was found empty because Jesus' body dematerialized after his death.

What can be said in response to the pseudoexplanation or to the increasingly popular New Age interpretation of Jesus' last days on earth? Several observations must be brought to bear. It is clear from the historical testimony that the disciples claimed to have seen Jesus alive after His burial in His tomb.[20] These claims pose particular problems for the pseudoexplanation. The only way to account for the post resurrection appearances of Jesus is to claim that either the disciples were lying or they were hallucinating when they claimed to see Him. But neither of these options are plausible. It could not be the case that the disciples were lying since they were martyred for what they claimed about Jesus. There was nothing to be gained by lying about having seen Jesus alive, and there was everything to lose by their testimony. All of the apostles except John died a martyr's death for their claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Though it might happen that one would die for what was false, it is not possible that one would die for what he knew was false. Thus, it is not reasonable to suppose that the disciples were lying.

Could it be that the disciples were deceived into believing that they had seen Jesus? Perhaps someone perpetrated a hoax on the disciples, or perhaps the disciples were hallucinating. It does not seem plausible, however, that anyone could have perpetrated a hoax on the disciples. Who could have done this and why? We have already seen that both the Jews and the Romans had a vested interest in quelling the resurrection rumors. No one could or would have taken the body out of the tomb. To insist upon such conjecture in order to avoid the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead seems increasingly ad hoc.

Neither does it seem plausible that the disciples were hallucinating. They could not have been deceived into thinking they had seen Jesus alive if His body was still dead in its tomb, which it must have been if He had not risen. Additionally, too many all at once saw Jesus alive.[21] Also, not only did the disciples claim to see Jesus, but they claimed to touch Him and eat with Him as well.[22] Thus, it seems impossible that the disciples were either lying or deceived, either by hoax or hallucination, in their claims to see Jesus alive after His death.

When we look at the New Age explanation, however, we find that the disciples' claims to have seen Jesus do no pose the initial problems they pose for th pseudoexplanation. The New Ag explanation would readily allow that the disciples indeed saw Jesus. This is perfectly compatible with Jesus being an Ascended Master. After all, didn't Luke see Obi Wan appear to him in the Dhagaba System? Didn't he also see both Yoda and Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader) together with Obi Wan as an unholy trinity after the Ewok victory over the Empire? It seems to fit very nicely. However, there is one problem with the disciples'account as far as the New Age explanation goes. We find, as I said earlier, that not only did the disciples see Jesus, but they touched Him and ate with Him as well. This proves that Jesus was a physical being after his resurrection. It was not a mere "ghost" that the disciples saw. Jesus was as real to the touch after His resurrection as He was before. This would not be the case for an Ascended Master. Though it might be possible for an Ascended Master to "manifest" to mere physical mortals, it would never be the case that the Ascended Master would allow those to whom he appeared to wrongfully believe that he was a physical entity resurrected from the dead. The whole point of an Ascended Master appearing would be to reassure those who had not yet ascended and to instruct them how to ascend themselves by mastering the mystical and occult techniques that lead to his own ascension. The disciples, however, most certainly believed that Jesus was exactly what Jesus wanted them to believe He was, i.e., a physically resurrected person.

Conclusion

An examination of the evidence surrounding the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth brings us to this conclusion. Since Jesus really died and was buried, and the tomb was found empty and the body could not have been stolen and it could not have disappeared (since the disciples saw Jesus after His death and could not have been lying, nor have been deceived by a hoax or an hallucination, nor have been seeing a "ghost" or an Ascended Master), then the best explanation for the empty tomb and the appearance of Jesus was that He really rose from the dead. There are no historical reasons for rejecting this conclusion. There can only be philosophical objections. But if God exists and miracles are possible, then it is most reasonable to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth rose bodily from the dead, just as He said He would. Thus, since Jesus predicted and accomplished His own resurrection from the dead, it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus was indeed who He claimed to be, viz., God incarnate.


Notes
[1] Some have argued that the notion of a "dying and rising god" is a common motif in world mythology and that Christianity merely borrowed the notion in its interpretation of the life of Jesus. This is patently false. I will address this and others claims about Christianity's supposed dependence upon the pagan religions for its own motifs in a future newsletter. For an excellent source on this topic see Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks [formerly Christianity and the Hellenistic World] (Dallas: Probe Books, 1992).
[2] Matthew 16:21; 20:17-19; 27:63, Mark 8:31; 9:31; John 2:19; 10:17-18
[3] Controversy has erupted periodically in church history over the nature of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Orthodox Christian theology has maintained that Jesus' resurrection from the dead was physical even if there were significant changes with His body. For a discussion of the contemporary status of the controversy over the nature of Jesus'resurrection from the dead and how the orthodox position is being challenged in evangelical circles see, Normal L. Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).
[4] At the risk of being redundant, let me remind you that philosophical objections against Christianity (e.g., people do not rise from the dead) are not answered by historical arguments. Philosophical objections must be met with philosophical arguments. For a discussion of this point see the section "History versus Philosophy" in the January, 1994 (Vol. 2, no. 1) issue of the Issachar Institute Newsletter. For an in-depth analysis of this point see, Norman L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976).
[5] The most famous account of one who set out to disprove the resurrection of Jesus by historically analyzing the evidence involved the English journalist Frank Morison. His findings, which led to his conversion to Christ are in his book Who Moved the Stone? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958).
[6] William D. Edwards; Wesley J. Gabel; and Floyd E. Hosmer, "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ," Journal of the American Medical Association 255 (March 21, 1986): 1455-1463.
[7] Some have suggested that the Bible is historically inaccurate because the victims were not nailed to the cross during crucifixion, but rather were tied. For the archeological evidence showing that indeed victims were nailed during crucifixion in the first century see, N. Haas, "Anthropological Observations on the Skeletal Remains from Giv'at ha-Mivtar," Israel Exploration Journal 20 (1970): 38-59; and Y. Yadin, "Epigraphy and Crucifixion," Israel Exploration Journal 23 (1973): 18-22. In the burial cave Giv'at ha-Mivtar, bones from a foot with the nail still embedded in them were found of a man who had been crucified. Interestingly, olive wood fragments were found on the end of the nail where it had penetrated a cross.
[8] "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ," p. 1463, emphasis in original.
[9] John 19:34
[10] Mark 15:44-45
[11] John 19:39-40
[12] Matthew 27:59-60
[13] Matthew 27:62-66
[14] Matthew 28:11-15
[15] Matthew 26:56
[16] In argument and rhetoric, an ad hoc explanation is really no explanation at all. It is when someone appeals to a principle or concept in order to explain or justify a claim, where the principle or concept serves no other purpose in his own philosophy or world view. For someone to introduce a principle in order to explain something when that principle has no other function and has no other application or value except for that one explanation, it is generally regarded as an implausible explanation.
[17] See, for example, Levi, The Aquarian Govpel of Jesus the Christ (Los Angeles: DeVorss & Co. Publishers, 1907): 254-270.
[18] This religious element of the movie series is not coincidental or accidental. For a discussion of the religious imagery and teaching of Star Wars see Norman L. Geisler and J. Yutaka Amano, Religion of the Force (Dallas: Quest Publications, 1983). A biography on George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, claims "Lucas wanted to instill in children a belief in a supreme being ... a universal deity that he named the Force, a cosmic energy source that incorporates and consumes all living things." (Dale Pollock, Skyiwalking. The Life and Films of George Lucas (New York: Harmony Books, 1983): 139, as quoted in Geisler, Religion, P. 22.)
[19] It is not clear that Darth Vader's body dematerialized the same way that Obi Wan's and Yoda's did. However, I believe it is a plausible interpretation of the film given the appearance of all three at the end.
[20] "During the forty days between His resurrection and ascension, the Lord Jesus is recorded to have appeared to His own followers on ten occasions, the first five of these being on the day of resurrection. The order of the appearances seems to be: (1) to Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:11-18); (2) to the women returning from the tomb with the angelic message (Matthew 28:8-10); (3) to Peter, probably in the afternoon (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5); (4) to the Emmaus disciples toward evening (Mark 16:12, Luke 24:13-32), (5) to the disciples, Thomas being absent (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-25); (6) on the next Sunday night, the appearance to the disciples, Thomas being present (John 20:26-31; 1 Corinthians 15:5); (7) to the seven beside the Sea of Galilee (John 21); (8) to the apostles and "more than five hundred of the brothers" (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18; 1 Corinthians 15:6); (9) to James, the Lord's half-brother (1 Corinthians 15:7); (10) His last recorded appearance and His ascension from Olivet (Mark 16:19-20; Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:3-12). It is also recorded that, after His ascension, Christ appeared one or more times to three men: (1) to Stephen, at his stoning (Acts 7:55-60); (2) to Paul: (a) at his conversion (Acts 9:3-8,17; 22:6-11,14-15; 26:12-19; 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8); (b) at Corinth (Acts 18:9-10); (c) in the Temple at Jerusalem (Acts 22:17-21); (d) later at Jerusalem (Acts 23:11); (e) in another vision (2 Corinthians 12:1-4); (3) to John, the apostle, on Patmos (Revelation 1:10-19, and other visions in Revelation)." (From The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967): q.v. John 20:16).
[21] 1 Corinthians 15:6
[22] John 21:4-14; Luke 24:36-43; Acts 10:40-41


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