The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: The Central Issue
The resurrection of Christ has rightly been called the linchpin of the Christian faith -- the historical event upon which Christian doctrine stands or falls. The Gospel is no mere "Christ consciousness." It is rather the decisive affirmation of the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the foundation of faith in Christ. The apostle Paul expresses this clearly "...if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty. ... For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone." (1 Cor. 15:13-14, 19).
In fact, the New Testament insists that belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ is the foundation of our faith "Because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9)
The importance of the resurrection of Christ is also shown in the frequency and enthusiasm with which it is pointed to as central to the faith of the early church (e.g., Acts 2:31; 4:33; 17:18; 26:23). Nearly every public witness to the Gospel points to the resurrection of Christ as the hope of salvation and the reason for that hope.
Resurrection of Christ - Key Questions
A person's belief in the resurrection of Christ (or lack of it) can generally be summarized in the answers to three questions:
Did Christ actually die on the Cross? The resurrection of Christ is clearly impossible if he didn't die in the first place.
If Christ did die on the Cross, was the tomb really empty? Again, the point is obvious --without an empty tomb, the concept of the resurrection is needless.
If the tomb was empty, how do we know that the resurrection of Christ was the reason? Were there any post-resurrection appearances? If it can be shown that Christ died and was placed in a tomb that turned out to be empty, it's reasonable to expect foul play of some sort -- unless, of course, Jesus appeared to individuals or groups of individuals after the empty tomb was discovered.
Resurrection of Christ - Making the Case
Did Christ actually die on the Cross?
While the "swoon theory" (that Christ did not die on the Cross, but instead passed out and was revived later in the tomb) has been given various degrees of scholarly credibility at different times in modern history, a careful scrutiny of the theory reveals its flaws. First, the nature of the beating Jesus received before being nailed to the cross would have been enough by itself to send him into shock. The whip --- braided leather thongs interwoven with metal balls and laced with sharp pieces of bone -- wielded by the Roman soldiers would have most likely broken and cut the skin, penetrating to the bone. Jesus was in such critical condition, it appears likely that he collapsed while carrying his crossbar to Calvary -- forcing the governor's soldiers to recruit Simon to carry it for him (Mat. 27:32; cf. Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26). Roman soldiers were quite good at what they did, and failure to properly crucify a person they were charged to execute by crucifixion would result in their own execution. We can therefore be fairly certain that they were correct in their assessment of Jesus' death (John 19:33). In fact, one of the soldiers "pierced his side with a spear" (v34) in order to ensure the accuracy of this judgment.
The final argument against the swoon theory relies on the response of the apostles to the post-resurrection appearances of Christ. Had he only swooned, and somehow revived in the cool air of the tomb, he would have been in terrible shape. Given the severity of the beating as noted above, he would have needed weeks, perhaps even months, to recover. Surely a man in this state would not have inspired the disciples, frightened and scattered after Jesus' capture, to preach his resurrection with a boldness and courage that often endangered their own lives!
Was Christ's tomb really empty?
One of the undisputed details of the resurrection is that the tomb was indeed empty. The first indicator is the reaction of the Jewish authorities when faced with the disciples' claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. Instead of producing the body, or perhaps organizing a search, they bribed the soldiers who had guarded the tomb (Matt. 28:11-15). In other words, instead of refuting the disciples' claims, they merely rejected them. Paul is also certain of the empty tomb in 1 Corinthians 15:6, when he mentions Jesus' appearance to 500 people, "most of whom are still living." Since the eyewitnesses were still alive, it would have been foolish for him to make such a bold and easily disproved claim without confidence in its accuracy.
Who saw Jesus after his death?
There is much biblical testimony of Christ's independent appearances to over 500 different individuals after his resurrection. In fact, the resurrection accounts list as many as 12 different appearances of Christ, starting with Mary Magdalene and ending with the apostle Paul. These appearances could not have been hallucinations, due to the variety of situations and the number of individuals involved -- there is no such thing as a "group hallucination." Further, these appearances were physical and tangible as evidenced by Christ's actions (e.g., eating with the disciples and suggesting that they touch his side and his hands). His resurrected body, though immortal, was undoubtedly a physical body.
The answers to these questions provide some direct evidence for the historical fact of the resurrection of Christ. In addition there is significant indirect evidence for his resurrection.
Resurrection of Christ - The Impact on His Followers
One of the clearest indirect evidences for the resurrection of Christ involves the transformation of His disciples. At the time of Jesus' death, the disciples were scattered (only John was present at the crucifixion), scared (Peter denied Christ three times for fear of being associated with him), and sceptical (the two disciples on the road to Emmaus doubted even while they talked with Jesus; Thomas demanded physical proof before he would believe). It seems highly unlikely that a group in this state would suddenly pull themselves together and start a church that continues to this day in the face of much opposition and even persecution; such a transformation is much more likely the result of an experience of the resurrected Christ. What would better explain the boldness and courage of a group who initially hid in secret (John 20:19)?
Further indirect evidence can be found in the teaching of the early church. Instead of focusing on one of Jesus' teachings from the Sermon on the Mount as might be expected if Jesus had only been executed, for example, they proclaimed instead the resurrection of Christ. In fact, within weeks of Christ's death, the apostles were "with great power ... giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 4:33). Repeated encounters with the resurrected Christ provide the best explanation for the sustained centrality of this theme.
As the apostles proclaimed the resurrection of Christ, the early church grew quickly. As a sect of Judaism -- a religion tenaciously committed to monotheism -- it is quite surprising that they would claim an exalted state of deity for Christ, pray to him as Lord, and baptize in his name! The bodily resurrection of Christ, coupled with the coming of the Holy Spirit, is again the best explanation for this.
Resurrection of Christ - Responding to Objections
Objections have been offered against the resurrection accounts. Good reasons however for challenging the major objections are expressed above. One more objection is common enough to warrant a closer look.
The resurrection accounts contradict each other. If this is an objection you've heard or have wondered about yourself, it's worth asking yourself if you can think of one or two specific contradictions? If not, keep in mind that intellectual honesty requires that a claim such as this, if it is to be used in debate of such an important issue, must be supported with examples at the very least.
Assuming that such examples have been provided, a closer look is necessary. The primary passages in question are Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21, with further accounts in Acts and 1 Corinthians. A useful exercise, whether or not you have concerns regarding these accounts, is to carefully compare each passage. It will likely become clear that, while the accounts may differ in minor details, they do not contradict each other in any objective sense of the word. In fact, they are complementary, and seem to agree and disagree in much the same way any set of independent accounts would, if produced by troubled eyewitnesses of such a traumatic occurrence.
Hopefully one example will suffice to show this complementary nature. Matthew 28:1 lists Mary Magdalene as the first to see the resurrected Christ, whereas Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:5, lists Peter as the first witness to the resurrection. This apparent contradiction is understood when the purpose of Paul's account is understood. In this letter, Paul is defending the resurrection from an official and legal standpoint, and so gives an official list of witnesses (women would not be included in this cultural setting, since their testimony was not allowed in court at that time). It makes sense, then, that he would mention Peter as the first official witness to the resurrection.
Resurrection of Christ - Your Conclusion
These thoughts offer reasons for the physical, historical resurrection of Christ. My hope is this will also be helpful in your reflection on this foundational reality of the faith of those who follow Christ. If you've not yet done so, I would encourage also an honest, objective look at the historical accounts themselves (beginning perhaps with Luke 24 and John 20-21 but including other accounts cited above). Perhaps such an approach will take you one step closer to "believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead." (Romans 10:9)
While the reality of the resurrection is more important to many than its timing, I would point out also that the resurrection of Jesus came on the first day of the week (Luke 24:1), the 17th of Nisan in the Jewish calendar, which is the day of the "Feast of Firstfruits." It is to this fact Paul refers when he points out, "Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruit of those who are asleep (I Corinthians 15:20)." Those who are "asleep" are those who have died in faith. Jesus resurrection is the "first fruit" of all those who will rise again and live forever with Him. His resurrection is the basis of our faith that we who trust in Him will rise also (I Corinthians 15:21-26).
My prayer is that as you recognize that God raised Jesus from the dead that you will believe also Christ's claims and wholeheartedly follow him.