Easter Examined: Could Jesus have risen from the dead?

As a child I learned many ‘fantastic’ stories surrounding our religious holidays.  I learned that a jolly fat man lived in the North Pole and flew around the world with reindeer, climbing down chimneys to give gifts to good girls and boys on Christmas.  I learned about the Easter bunny that gave out eggs and chocolates to the same good girls and boys at Easter time.  As I grew older I realized that these stories were cute but not true – I could look back and smile on them – but I would (and did) outgrow them.

Is the Resurrection story of Jesus credible?

I also learned other ‘stories’ about our religious holidays.  These stories had shepherds seeing angels, wise men following stars, a baby born in a manger – stories that form the basis of the Christmas celebration.  But perhaps the most dramatic was the story of how Jesus died on a cross, but that three days later he came back to life again – stories forming the basis of Easter.

These second set of stories, taken at face value, seem as fantastic as the first set.  The question I had when I got a little older and realized that the first set of stories were not ‘really’ true was – Is the second set also false?  After all, these stories seem equally incredible!  This is especially true of the Easter story which claimed that three days after his death, Jesus underwent a physical resurrection and came to life again.  This is probably the most audacious story across all religions, one perhaps fit for a tabloid headline – ‘Dead Man Comes Back to Life’.  Could it be true? Or even credible?  Was there any reasonable evidence to substantiate it?

The Resurrection: A Life-and-Death Issue

These are hard questions to answer.  But surely it is worth some adult thought since it touches on our mortality.  After all, as Woody Allen reminded us in ‘The Wisdom I learned from a filthy-rich, hard-drinking playboy’ death is inevitable for you, me and all others too.  If Jesus has in some way defeated death then it would have huge implications for all of us.  So in this and the subsequent post I want to briefly summarize some things I have learned in studying and thinking through this question.  There are more detailed videos in Session 7.

Perhaps the best way to try to answer this question is to work through all the possible alternatives and see which alternative makes most sense – without prejudging by ‘faith’ any supernatural explanation.  That Jesus lived and died a public death that has altered the course of history is certain.  One need not even go to the Bible for that.  We looked at some external evidence for this in Session 4.  But here let’s review a couple of secular references to Jesus and the impact he made on the world of his day.

Tacitus’ Testimony relating to Jesus and the Resurrection

The Roman governor-historian Tacitus made a fascinating reference to Jesus when describing how Nero martyred 1st century Christians (in AD 65) as scapegoats for the burning of Rome.  Here is what he says:

‘Nero.. punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also’ (Annals XV. 44)

The interesting point about this statement is that Tacitus corroborates that Jesus was: 1) a historical person; 2) executed by Pontius Pilate in Judea; 3) by 65 AD (time of Nero) the Christian faith had spread across the Mediterranean to Rome from Judea – and with such an intensity that the emperor of Rome felt he had to deal with it.  Notice as well that Cornelius Tacitus is saying these things as a hostile witness since he considers what Christ started a ‘pernicious superstition’.

Josephus’ Testimony relating to Jesus & the Resurrection

Josephus was a Jewish military leader/historian who wrote to a Roman audience.  In this writing he summarizes the history of the Jewish nation from its beginning up to his time.  In so doing he covers the time and career of Jesus with these words:

‘At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous.  And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that He had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that He was alive’… (Antiquities xviii. 33)

So it seems from these glimpses back into the past that the death of Christ was a known and discussed event and the issue of his resurrection was being forced unto the Roman world by his disciples.

Acts on Events in Jerusalem just after Jesus’ Crucifixion

Luke, a physician and historian provides further details as to how this movement advanced in the ancient world.  Here is his excerpt from Acts:

‘The priests and the captain … came up to Peter and John … They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead…They seized Peter and John… put them in jail…When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished… “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked’.. (Acts 4:1-16)
‘Then the high priest and all his associates,… arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. …they were furious and wanted to put them to death….They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.’ (Acts 5:17-40)

One can see from this account that the political/religious leaders were going to great lengths to stop this ‘pernicious superstition’ (as Tacitus called it).  We should note that these events were occurring in Jerusalem – the same city where only a few weeks earlier Jesus had been publicly executed and buried.

An Empty Tomb: Reasoned from Historical Testimony

Having surveyed the pertinent historical data we are in a position to work through the possible explanations that surround the hypothesized resurrection of Christ.  To start with, we have two (and only two) possible alternatives concerning the body of the dead Jesus.

Options for the Jesus' Tomb occupied or empty

Options for the Tomb of Jesus

As the figure shows, the body of Christ was either in the tomb or was not.  Let us assume that his body was still in the tomb.  As we reflect on the unfolding events recorded in history, however, we are quickly confronted with absurdities.  Why would the religious/political leaders have to go to such extremes to stop such exaggerations of an alleged resurrection if the body was still in the tomb, a few minutes walk from where the disciples were publicly proclaiming his resurrection?  If I had been one of those religious/political leaders, I would have waited until Peter or John had reached the climax of their speech concerning the resurrection and then publicly paraded the body of Christ before all – audience and disciples.  I would have discredited the fledgling movement without having to imprison, torture and finally martyr them!  And consider – thousands were converted to belief in the physical resurrection of Christ in Jerusalem at this time.  If I had been one of those in the crowds – listening to Peter, pondering and wondering if I could believe his incredible message (after all, this belief came with a price of persecution) I would have at least taken my lunch break to go down to the tomb to take a look for myself.  If the body of Christ was still in the tomb this movement would not have gained any adherents in such a hostile environment with such incriminating counter evidence on-hand.  So Christ’s body remaining in the tomb leads to absurdities.  This alternative cannot be seriously entertained.

Tomb was not occupied

Of course this does not prove a resurrection.  There are several natural possibilities for how a tomb can get empty.  In my next post I look at some.

7. News Pregnant with Hope: Considering the Death & Resurrection of Jesus

One of the most hopeful times in life is when a couple hears that they are going to have a baby.  The expectation of a new life that will burst on the scene, full of energy, need and promise fills parent’s hearts with celebration, joy and hope.  And so the parents wait, prepare, and check ‘under the hood’ with ultrasound and heartbeat to see if that life that is still invisible to the eye is indeed there, and is growing.

That Jesus died and rose physically from the dead is central to the gospel.  In fact, Paul in his letter to the Corinthians states it this way:

I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you…. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, … and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:1-8)

This is what makes the news of the gospel pregnant with hope – Jesus has conquered death and this new life of his can infuse anyone with this same new life.  So in a sense the gospel  can be viewed as a promise of good news that we can become ‘pregnant’ with new life that will one day burst upon the scene.  But now it is hidden or masked to the naked eye just like that of a woman in her first month of pregnancy; though she carries a new life, it is not outwardly visible.

But one can take a hard look ‘under the hood’ so to speak on whether Jesus actually – in a physical and historical sense – did rise from the dead.  This hope was never meant to be accepted on blind faith, or by cultural custom, or just by taking it for granted.  Just like a couple who wants to see an ultrasound or hear a heartbeat of the pregnant life within the woman’s body, the videos in this session invite you to consider through history and reason whether in fact Jesus did rise from the dead.  If so, we can have a solid assurance of this same new life given to us if we want it – we would have a firm hope.

In this first video I cover eye-witness details from the gospels that confirm that Jesus in fact did die.  Then I survey extra-biblical historical sources that bear on life and death of Jesus: Mara-bar Serapion, Tacitus, Josephus and Suetonius.  From these sources we learn that his followers began their movement in Jerusalem, a few weeks after his death, in the teeth of opposition from the religious/political leaders there.  We therefore can prove that the tomb was empty because the authorities were not able to produce the body – the only effective way to stop this movement.

In this 2nd video I look at various naturalistic explanations for why the tomb of Jesus could have been empty on Easter Sunday.  I look at whether the authorities could have moved the body; whether grave robbers could have stolen it; whether the disciples could have stolen it; or whether the whole story was just a myth that developed over a long time.  I show that none of these explanations come close to explaining the historical events that we know happened at that time.  I also look into the changed lives of Jesus’ brothers and of Saul, arguing that no explanation apart from the resurrection could account for these changes that we know from history happened in these men.  I close by looking at why this event is so pertinent to all of us.

Blog Posts Related to this Session

  • April 13, 2014 - Palm Sunday: Passover Plot or Providence Program?

  • November 8, 2013 - An evening at the University of Wyoming – on the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus

  • April 5, 2013 - The Heart that Changed History – Did it Beat Again?

  • June 4, 2012 - Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 4

  • May 22, 2012 - Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 3

  • May 6, 2012 - Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 2

  • April 30, 2012 - Considering the Resurrection: From the Eyes of its Denier – Bishop Spong

  • April 7, 2012 - Easter Examined (Part 2)

  • April 4, 2012 - Easter Examined: Could Jesus have risen from the dead?

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