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Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?


Last week I wrote a post here on David Hume, miracles, and the resurrection of Jesus. Some of the commenters took issue with my claim that "all the alternatives to the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead are more incredible than the miracle." I'd like to elaborate on that here.

Christians claim that the historical human being Jesus of Nazareth was executed then physically rose from the dead and stayed alive. He was seen by many people and then was seen to vanish into the invisible realm. Here we have the most revolutionary and radical question of human history. Did it really happen?

There are only three plausible options: that Jesus rose from the dead as Christians contend; that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t really die; or that he died, but that somehow his body disappeared and his disciples came to believe that he rose from the dead. The first question therefore is, did Jesus really die?

Alternative #1: Jesus Didn't Die

After his trial, Jesus of Nazareth was tortured by flogging. The punishment was not only severe, it was public. The Romans flogged a criminal with whips that had pieces of glass, pottery, and metal tied into the cords. Not only was Jesus flogged to within an inch of his life, but his executioners were professionals whose jobs depended on them doing a thorough job. His flogging was public and so was his execution. He was taken through the city streets and crucified in a public place.

Furthermore, his enemies themselves were present to make sure the job was done. This is recorded in the gospels, but the basic facts match what we know of Roman customs of the time and there is no reason why they should be doubted.

Using David Hume’s idea that we must believe that option which is easiest to believe, saying that Jesus was killed is certainly easier to believe than saying he was not killed on that dark afternoon. If he was not killed, then the disciples made up the story of his execution, but why would devotees of a religious preacher make up the story that he was executed as a criminal, especially since it was a public event? Many people saw it take place. We must conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and died.

Nevertheless, some people, including many Muslims, theorize that it wasn’t really Jesus who died. It was perhaps his brother James who resembled him, or it was Judas, or a celebrity lookalike who stood in for Jesus. Again, it takes more faith to believe in these theories than the simple truth. The reason Judas kissed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was to confirm his identity. Also, Peter was certain who he was denying and the crowd before Pilate knew who they were accusing. The scribes and Pharisees were intent on Jesus' death and interrogated him personally. Are we to believe that an impostor fooled them all? Was the man killed a stand in? Surely when things became deadly the patsy would have denied that he was Jesus of Nazareth.

Other non-Christians theorize that it was Jesus on the cross, but he didn’t really die. Perhaps he was drugged with painkillers and simply passed out. The gospel says a soldier offered him a painkiller, but he refused it. If Jesus only passed out we must believe that the man was flogged so that the torture ripped great chunks of flesh from his body. After dragging the heavy cross through the city streets, he was nailed to it by professional executioners who, instead of breaking his legs to hasten his death, stabbed him with a spear through the heart. Water and blood came from the wound and modern medical experts testify that this only happens after death.

But we’re to believe that he only passed out or went into a coma? Again, this is more difficult to believe than the reported story. But if we go with this theory, as the story progresses it gets even more difficult to believe.

Let us just suppose that Jesus did somehow survive the flogging, the crucifixion, and the thrust of the spear. After he was taken down he was buried. Now we have to believe that he woke up in a freezing tomb on a chilly Spring morning. Having suffered a huge blood loss, horrific wounds, a spear in the side and terrible shock and trauma. Despite all this he stops to unwrap his own tightly wound shroud and head cloth and he takes care to fold them neatly at the foot of his bed. Then (from the inside) he rolls back a stone on the outside of the tomb that weighs a couple of tons.

He then stumbles out, totally naked, and limps up to the disciples on his bloody feet, with his back looking like a butcher shop. His head is covered with puncture wounds and contusions. His side has a gaping wound. He shows the disciples his hands, and gasps out a greeting. What would you have done? You would have shrieked in horror and realized that your friend had somehow survived a most terrible ordeal, then you would take him home, call the doctor and put him to bed.

Instead we are supposed to believe that the disciples said, “He is risen! Alleluia! Let’s start a new religion!”

Again, it takes more faith to believe such an outrageous theory than to accept the simple events as they were related. Hume was right. We must believe the option which is most probable.

Alternative #2: Jesus Died, But Didn't Rise Again

That brings us to the next category of resurrection deniers who say Jesus really did die, but something else happened to his body. Consequently his disciples came to believe that he had risen from the dead.

Was his body hurriedly abandoned and thrown on the dump to be devoured by dogs? We know from other evidence that the Jews were very careful about burying the bodies of their loved ones, and the details of the story are there in the gospels. His friends took the body to bury it. If the body had not been buried why did Jesus’ enemies ask Pilate for guards for the tomb?

Maybe the disciples stole the body. Shall we believe that the eleven men who fled in terror when their friend was arrested suddenly got back together and planned a heist worthy of a "Mission Impossible" film? Why would they do that? They were as surprised as everyone else by the resurrection. Would they really plan such a heist to perpetrate a hoax? Is this the sort of hoax anyone would believe? No. You only plan a hoax if the hoax is something people might just fall for. A hoax to make people believe someone had risen from the dead?

Did they perpetrate the hoax to start a new religion? Why would they do that? What was in it for them? There was no such thing as starting a religion to be a prosperity preacher back then. As history proved, the only thing they got out of it was the loss of all their worldly goods, persecution, imprisonment, torture, homelessness, and eventually slow torture and martyrdom. They welcomed all that for a hoax?

Perhaps, some propose, the disciples went to the wrong tomb. But if they had, would they have drawn the conclusion that Jesus had risen from the dead? No. They would have said, “Whoops, wrong tomb. Hey, we messed up again!” Had Jesus been in another tomb all his enemies would have produced the body and pointed out the disciples’ foolish mistake. Once again, to believe the alternative theory is more difficult than to believe the traditional account.

Then we have the modernist theologian’s answer. For the modernist Christian, the resurrection was not a “crudely physical” event, but a “spiritual reality”. In other words, in some sort of wonderful way the teachings and example of Jesus continued to live in the hearts and minds of his followers and this, if you like, is what resurrection is really all about.

The problem here is that the simple meaning of the word “resurrection” is that a body that was dead came back to life again. There are spiritual meanings to be derived from this fact to be sure, but if there were no physical fact, then the spiritual meanings would be meaningless. Saying that the resurrection was not physical but a “spiritual event” is like a woman on her wedding night denying her husband the consummation of their marriage by saying, “We needn’t be quite so crudely physical as to have sexual intercourse. Marriage is, after all, simply a beautiful spiritual idea!”

The modernist theologian’s reductionist explanation doesn’t account for the simple facts of the whole story. Shall we believe that the apostles went on to follow lives of hardship, suffering, and deprivation, finally being tortured and killed for what was merely a “spiritual meaning” or a “beautiful theological idea”? I don’t think so.

When faced with the slow torture of crucifixion or being flayed or boiled alive don’t you think they would have said, “Hold on! All that resurrection Son of God stuff? You misunderstood! It didn’t really happen! It was only a spiritual meaning! It was a metaphor! It was a theological construct!”

Finally, we have the Biblical scholars’ theory that St. Paul and the gospel writers made up all the resurrection stories to bolster their new religion. There are too many implausible details to go into at this point, but the main obstacle to this conspiracy theory is that St. Paul died only thirty years after the death of Jesus himself, and he reported that the stories he had about the resurrection were facts he himself had received from eyewitnesses. If St. Paul or the gospel writers had made it all up, there were still plenty of eyewitnesses alive who would have corrected them—not least the murderous enemies of the new religion.

The fact of the resurrection is a good starting point for the debates about God’s existence. Arguments between Catholics and atheists can move forward in an intriguing way because the arguments surrounding the resurrection are more concrete and literal than philosophical arguments. They bring the argument about God down to earth...which is what the Christian religion is all about in the first place.
(Image credit: Wikimedia)

Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. He was brought up in an Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and then in 1995, he and his family were received into the Catholic Church. For the next ten years he worked as a freelance writer, contributing to more than fifty magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He now serves as parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. Fr. Dwight is the author of many books including The Quest for the Creed (Crossroads, 2012); More Christianity: Finding the Fullness of the Faith (Ignatius, 2010); and Catholicism Pure and Simple (Stauffer Books, 2012). Connect with his website DwightLongenecker.com, or his Patheos blog, Standing On My Heard.

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