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Resurrection or Deception?

The story of Jesus’ resurrection is a compelling one, but is it true? How can we in the twenty-first century account for this Gospel story?

Possible Explanations:

Mass Hallucinations

Could it have been a mass hallucination? That’s not a likely answer. Too many people saw the resurrected Jesus over too long a period of time to dismiss it as a mass hallucination. Besides, hallucinations don’t have physical bodies to touch, and they don’t eat and carry on prolonged conversations. Moreover, mass hallucination does not explain the empty grave. No, mass hallucination is not a satisfactory answer.

Swoon Theory

Some speculate Jesus was still alive when taken down from the cross. He had merely fainted and gone into a coma. Aroma from the burial spices revived him in the tomb. He got up, rolled back the stone, and walked away.

Somewhere along the way, he happened to find some clean clothes. Dressed in his new apparel, he ran into Mary Magdalene and her friends. They were startled, so much so, they ran off and spread conflicting rumors about his return from death.

Then Jesus dropped in on his disciples. They misinterpreted the entire event thinking he was a ghost. Jesus attempted to convince his friends he was still a man. He even had them touch his crucifixion wounds. Despite his efforts, they would not be persuaded. Eventually he gave up and set out for some unknown destination where he lived the rest of his life anonymously. He never taught, preached, or performed another miracle. And no one ever discovered his true identity.

It’s a wonder, Hollywood hasn’t picked up on this idea and made a film about “The Great Deception.” Maybe they have and I missed it.

That theory has a few holes in it, large gaping holes at that. It is rather apparent that Jesus did die on the cross. That’s what the soldiers breaking legs said, and that’s what the soldier with the spear made sure of. That is also what the centurion reported to Pilate.

These men were familiar with death and they were well-acquainted with crucifixion. They could tell the difference between an alive and a dead man. Furthermore, they knew how to make sure a man is dead. In other words, the crucifixion detail knew its grisly task.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say Jesus wasn’t dead, even after the spear thrust in his side. In that case Joseph and Nicodemus placed an unconscious, badly damaged, bleeding body in a cool tomb and wrapped spices around him. But he still wouldn’t have a chance. Shock would more than likely kill him; if not, he would certainly bleed to death. Those large nail holes through his wrists and heels would render his hands and feet useless. He wouldn’t be able to move himself, to say nothing of the heavy stone at the entrance. No, the “swoon theory” doesn’t work.

Let’s go back to Friday. Friday evening before 6 pm, Joseph rolled a heavy stone closing the entrance to the tomb. Inside is Jesus’ disfigured dead body wrapped in linen and covered with seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes. Early Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene, her companions, the apostles Peter and John, and even the guards and the chief priests all seem to agree: The body is missing. So what happened to Jesus’ body? There are only two possible answers. Either someone removed the corpse, or Jesus arose from death.

Someone Stole the Corpse

Let’s consider the first possibility. Someone took Jesus’ body away. Who would want it? Certainly not the religious or civil authorities. They were the ones who had the tomb secured, specifically so no one would tamper with the body. What about the disciples or maybe even grave robbers? Could they have stolen the body? No. The sealed tomb and guards were adequate protection against theft.

But didn’t the chief priests and soldiers claim, “the disciples stole the body while the guards were asleep”? (Matthew 28:12-13) That’s what they said; but it doesn’t make sense. How would the guards have known the disciples took the corpse if they were asleep? And how could the disciples have rolled back a sealed, or even an unsealed, heavy stone without awaking the guards?

Remember the chief priests spoke of shielding the guards should Pilate hear that they slept on duty? (Matthew 28:14) Those were Roman soldiers. The usual punishment for a Roman soldier who fell asleep at his post was death. Considering those consequences, it’s very unlikely they were all asleep at the same time.

If they had been asleep, they would be the last ones to admit it. What’s more, why should the same Jewish leaders who asked for the guard detail be eager to cover-up for the guards who went to sleep on their requested assignment? The most that can be said for it is that it is an awkward story that doesn’t pass scrutiny. Nobody got past the guards and the sealed tomb to steal the body.

Disciples Bribed Guards and Took Corpse

If that idea doesn’t fly, let’s try something more plausible. Maybe the disciples bribed the guards and got Jesus’ body out with the help of the Roman soldiers. Certainly, the Jews proved the soldiers could be bought for a price.

Bribing the Roman guards has its own set of problems. The first problem is the disciples themselves. They were frightened and disillusioned. They were not in a frame of mind to bribe the guards for Jesus’ corpse. Even if they had been, the disciples were not noted for their wealth. And the guards risk their own lives by taking a bribe of that sort. It follows they would require a very large payoff to take such a gamble.

Let’s face it, offering a bribe to the guards would be risky business. If negotiations with the soldiers broke down, the guards might well decide to turn the disciples over to the chief priests. After all, the chief priests did have money, and they would definitely be interested in anyone who wanted Jesus’ body.

There would probably be a nice fat reward for nabbing those disciples. And equally appealing, the guards would not be placing themselves in jeopardy. Would the disciples take such a risk? Apparently not, they seemed to prefer the safety of staying behind locked doors. (John 20:19)

Let’s not forget, the disciples and the guards were not the only ones involved in this story. The chief priests play a part too. What do you think the Jewish leaders would do if they really believed the apostles had Jesus’ body? Those chief priests showed they understood Jesus when he said he would rise on the third day. They also knew the importance of preventing that deception. (Matthew 27:62-64)

I suspect they would have hunted down Jesus’ followers and bribed or tortured them one by one until someone talked. And someone would talk. One of them would tell the chief priests where to find the body. The Jews would exhibit the corpse, and the rumor about his resurrection would quickly fade. But none of this took place. That fact leads us to believe the Jews knew the disciples did not have the body of Jesus.

Effect of Seeing the Resurrected Jesus

The most remarkable thing about the claims of seeing Jesus is the effect it had on the one making the claim. We have already looked at Paul’s conversion. He did a complete flip flop. Paul went from being the number one persecutor of Christians to becoming the number one spokesman for Christianity. And it happened overnight. What reason did he give for the sudden change? He tells us the reason; he saw the resurrected Jesus. That’s the road to Damascus Experience.

The effect on the other apostles is no less dramatic. In my earlier article “Apostles: Legendary Heroes or Real Men?” we took a look at the way the Gospels depicted the apostles. They weren’t zealots; they were just normal men with normal flaws and shortcomings. Sometimes they were quarrelsome; sometimes they were petty; and often they were just ignorant of things Christ expected them to know.

Occasionally, they were cowards. At a critical moment, they deserted their master. Peter even denied knowing Jesus three times. And after Jesus’ death, his disciples were leaderless and frightened. Afraid of the Jews, they stayed behind locked doors.

Suddenly, these frightened little men do a complete about-face. Paul and the apostles spearhead the Christian movement. These men rapidly spread the Good News across Palestine, through Europe, and into Africa. They are fearless and tireless in converting both Jews and gentiles to Jesus Christ.

No longer are they afraid of the Jews. In fact, they seem to welcome persecution. They count it as a blessing that they are considered worthy to suffer for Christ. They teach and preach the Good News of Jesus and his resurrection. Beatings don’t stop them; prisons don’t stop them; even death doesn’t slow down the spread of Christianity. Others praise them for the way they face death and step in to take their place.

What happened? What turned those demoralized, fearful men into dynamic heroes in such a short time? They say they saw the resurrected Jesus. In him they found their reason for living and even a cause worth dying for.

If they are telling us the truth, that is, Jesus actually arose from the grave and appeared to them, their reaction is logical. They are willing to follow the One who conquered death and promised eternal life. On the other hand, if the resurrection story was a hoax, it doesn’t make any sense at all.

Apostles Didn’t Take the Body.

Look at it from the disciples’ point of view. Say they had somehow gained possession of Jesus’ body and concealed it from the authorities. Next, they fabricated the story of Jesus’ resurrection. And from that point on, the disciples dedicated their lives to spreading what they knew to be a lie. They knew for a fact that Jesus was nothing but a fraud. Likewise, they knew that there was no real hope for life beyond the grave.

Yet the disciples faced suffering, abuse, and even death all to perpetuate a cynical hoax. Not one of them cracked. They never admitted their deception, and no one else uncovered it. Does that sound reasonable? No, not a bit of it! Real people just don’t act that way.

You have heard it said, there are two things you can count on in this life: death and taxes. I will give you a third. No man, past or present, is willing to die for what he knows to be a lie. There’s no exception. Then again, men throughout history have shown they are willing to face death for what they honestly believe to be the truth.

The apostles weren’t fools. They were practical men who were not easy to persuade. There was no doubt in their minds they were seeing and talking to the resurrected Christ. Christ’s victory over death inspired them to face abuse, hardship, and death. The turnaround in the lives of Paul and the apostles is the most clear-cut evidence we have of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Science, History, Natural Laws, and Jesus

I have heard people say they cannot accept the story of Jesus’ resurrection because it has no basis in science. But surely that is not a reasonable objection. We accept a wide variety of information everyday which has no scientific backing. For instance, we accept or reject stories in the newspaper or television based on our estimate of the news media’s reliability. We can’t very well hook them up to a lie detector to see if they are telling the truth.

Tell me, how do you know if your friend is telling you the truth? I suspect you don’t shove him in a test tube, pour in a few chemicals, and shake him up to see if he’s lying. No, you accept or reject what he says based upon his past honesty.

Likewise, you either trust your spouse or you don’t depending upon your estimate of his or her past behavior. Very unscientific it’s true; but that is the only reasonable way you can make most decisions in life.

Someone might say, “Oh, but those are personal matters. We would not expect to apply scientific analysis to friends, family, or even our tastes in newscasters.”

Where should we require scientific proof then? How about geography? I have never been to London, England. But I believe there is such a place. I accept it based upon authority: authority of maps which show the city, books which tell about the city, teachers who assure me London exists, and eyewitnesses who have been there. It is not a scientific method, but we all accept it anyway.

Now consider history. How do we know there was ever a Julius Caesar, a Napoleon, or a Lord Horatio Nelson? In so far as that goes, how do we know the Spanish Armada was defeated or that the Battle of Waterloo ever took place?

We “know” and accept it based on authority, the authority of history books which tell us those men lived and those battles took place. The people who wrote our history books never saw those men nor witnessed those events either. Caesar, Napoleon, and Nelson all died long before our current historians were born.

The only reason we know of those famous men and long ago events is because they were recorded by eyewitnesses of their day. Written firsthand accounts have been passed down to our present generation. That too is not a scientific method. But this isn’t science; it’s history. And that is the way we document historical events. If that were not acceptable, we would be forced to discard all history before the age of photography.

Then we turn to Jesus Christ. He too was a historical character. We know that the same way we know Caesar, Napoleon, and Nelson were historical figures. Numerous eyewitnesses, both friend and foe, saw and heard him, and some wrote about him.

Jesus lived and died. Scholars and historians agree; that much is not an issue. Jesus was a great moral teacher too. Again, we find widespread agreement. That is not an issue either. Then we get to Jesus’ miracles, and here is where we find the skeptics. “Miracles,” they say, “run counter to the laws of nature. Therefore, by definition, they cannot be true.”

If nature and the laws of nature were all that existed, then miracles (defined as exceptions to the law of nature) should not occur. On the other hand, if God created the universe and established the “laws of nature,” it’s reasonable to believe that he has the power and authority to supersede his own laws, if he so chooses. That is exactly what Christians believe he did to prove the deity of Jesus and to establish his church.

There is another problem with questioning Jesus’ miracles. Namely, the same four sources who give us Jesus “the great moral teacher,” are also the ones who present “Jesus the miracle worker.” Why accept the teachings and reject the miracles reported by the same men?

We have, in fact, good reason to believe Jesus did perform miracles. Matthew and John were themselves eyewitnesses to Jesus “miracles, signs, and wonders.” Mark records Peter’s eyewitness accounts. And Luke passes on the firsthand reports of other eyewitnesses. These are credible witnesses. They saw Jesus’ miracles.

Many others at the time saw Jesus perform miracles. At Pentecost, Peter appeals to the crowd’s knowledge of Jesus’ power to convince them that he was both Lord and Christ. And it worked. Three thousand of them were added to the Christian movement that day. Even Jesus’ enemies did not question the fact that he performed miracles. They merely questioned the source of his power.

Long before Jesus’ birth, Hebrew prophets detailed the life, death, and resurrection of the coming Messiah. The prophecies were specific and to the point. Coincidental fulfillment was (and is) out of the question.

Jesus was a real historical man who claimed he was (and is) the Son of God. He said he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He offers us no other alternative. He emphatically said, “No one sees the Father except through me.”

Jesus backed up his claims with his authoritative teachings, his numerous miracles, and his resurrection from death. No one before or since has made claims of that sort. And certainly no one else has offered such convincing proof of divinity.

Testimony from church bishops in A.D. 130 and 177, plus comparisons of papyrus documents of the period, and internal evidence from the Gospels themselves all argue for early dates for Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We have good reason to believe these three Gospels were first century reports from men close to the original sources.

The oral tradition proceeded the written Gospels by twenty to thirty years or less. Matthew and John may well have relied on their own recollections for most of their books. Furthermore, the Gospels were composed during a period when many people of Jesus’ generation were still alive and could remember the “real” Jesus. The Gospel writers would have lost all credibility with their readers if they contradicted public knowledge of the events.

Textual critics assure us that the Gospel stories are basically the same today as when the authors composed them. In fact, the reliability of the New Testament text compares favorably with that of other ancient writings.

The supernatural element was not a later addition of the Gospels. We find it was an intricate part of the original story. Peter used the Jews’ knowledge of Jesus’ miraculous powers as well as his resurrection to convert them to Christianity. Paul spoke of Jesus’ resurrection in an attempt to persuade King Agrippa.

The early writers Irenaeus and Tertullian say that John the apostle wrote the Gospel that bears his name. John’s detailed realism leads us to believe his Gospel is to a large extent a report on events and conversations he witnessed himself. Luke’s meticulous historical approach reads like a report of actual events. His style and content support his claim of objectivity. He investigated eyewitnesses and reported what they had to say.

But the basic integrity of all four Gospels is evident throughout their works. These narratives have that certain odd, nitty gritty quality about them which is often found in real stories. They are not smooth nor good enough to be fiction. The authors frequently include puzzling or even damaging bits of information. They don’t seem to embellish their accounts, and they certainly don’t cover up their blemishes.

And then there is that mysterious missing body and the five hundred people who claimed they saw the resurrected Jesus. Mass hallucinations do not explain the empty grave, nor the numerous individuals who reported they saw him, nor the physical body that welcomed the skeptic’s touch.

Credible Witnesses

Jesus died from crucifixion. His disciples did not remove his body. The inactivity of the chief priests leads us to believe they understood the body was beyond recovery. The disciples dramatically turned from cowards into courageous spokesmen for the risen Christ. The early church claims Matthew, Mark, and Luke all died martyrs’ deaths. The apostles too, say sources ranging from obscure to credible, paid the ultimate price for spreading the word of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Here is how they are said to have died:

Peter – Early Christian apologists Tertullian and Origen tell us Peter was crucified upside down in Rome under Nero in A.D. 64.

Andrew – According to extracanonical tradition, Andrew suffered crucifixion in Achaia.

Matthew – John Foxe in the Book of Martyrs states Matthew died as a martyr in the city of Nadabah in A.D. 60.

John – Exiled to the Isle of Patmos by Emperor Domitian but believe to have died a natural death.

James, son of Alphaeus – Tradition says James was crucified in Persia.

Philip – Tradition says he died by crucifixion.

Simon the Zealot – Tradition says he died by crucifixion.

Thaddaeus – Tradition says he was killed by stones and clubs.

Thomas – Tradition says he was martyred in India.

Bartholomew – According to Eusebius, he died as a martyr by being drowned.

James, son of Zebebee and older brother of John – He was put to death by a sword in A.D. 44 under orders of Herod Agrippa I.

Other early martyrs:

Stephen – Stoned by the Jews in A.D. 36.

James, brother of Jesus – Stoned in A.D. 62.

Paul – Beheaded somewhere between A.D. 62 and 68.

These men were eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ. They say the miracle worker from Galilee did what he set out to do: He defeated death. He kept his word. In their minds, Jesus proved beyond reasonable doubt that he was (and is) the Son of God. That was their testimony, and they were willing to die for it. Such are credible witnesses.

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