Both friends and enemies of the Christian faith have recognized the resurrection of Christ to be the foundation stone of the Faith. Paul, the great apostle, wrote to those in Corinth, who in general denied the resurrection of the dead: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain.” Paul rested his whole case on the bodily resurrection of Christ. Either he did or he didn’t rise from the dead. If he did, it was the most sensational event in all of history, and we have conclusive answers to the profound questions of our existence: Where have we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? If Christ rose, we know with certainty that God exists, what he is like, and how we may know him in personal experience; the universe takes on meaning and purpose, and it is possible to experience the living God in contemporary life. These and many other wonderful things are true if Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.
On the other hand, if Christ did not rise from the dead, Christianity is an interesting museum piece-nothing more. It has no objective validity or realtity. Though it is a nice wishful thought, it certainly isn’t worth getting steamed up about. The martyrs who went singing to the lions, and contemporary missionaries who have given their lives in Ecuador and Congo while taking this message to others, have been poor deluded fools.
The attack on Christianity by its enemies has most often concentrated on the resurrection because it has been correctly seen that this event is the crux of the matter. A remarkable attack was the one contemplated in the early thirties by a young British lawyer. He was convinced that the resurrection was a mere tissue of fable and fantasy. Sensing that it was the foundation stone of the Christian faith, he decided to do the world a favor by once-and-for-all exposing this fraud and superstition. As a lawyer, he felt he had the critical faculties rigidly to sift evidence and to admit nothing as evidence which did not meet the stiff criteria for admission into a law court today.
However, while he was doing his research, a remarkable thing happened. The case was not nearly as easy as he had supposed. As a result, the first chapter of his book is entitled, “The Book That Refused to Be Written.” In it he describes how, as he examined the evidence, he became persuaded against his will, of the fact of the bodily resurrection.
The book is called, Who Moved the Stone? The author is Frank Morison.
What are some of the pieces of data to be considered in answering the question, Did Christ rise from the dead?
First, there is the fact of the Christian Church. It is worldwide in scope. Its history ran be traced back to Palestine around A.D. 32. Did it just happen or was there a cause for it? These people who were first called Christians at Antioch turned the world of their time upside down. They constantly referred to the resurrection as the basis for their teaching, preaching, living, and – significantly – dying.
Then, there is the fact of the Christian day. Sunday is the day of worship for Christians. Its history can be traced back to the year A.D. 32. Such a shift in the calendar was monumental, and something cataclysmic must have happened to change the day of worship from the Jewish Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, to Sunday, the first day. Christians said the shift came because of their desire to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This shift is all the more remarkable when we remember that the first Christians were Jews. If the resurrection does not account for this monumental upheaval, what does?
Then there is the Christian book, the New Testament. In its pages are contained six independent testimonies to the fact of the resurrection. Three of them are by eyewitnesses: John, Peter, and Matthew. Paul, writing to the churches at an early date, refers to the resurrection in such a way that it is obvious to him and his readers that the event was well known and was accepted without question. Are these men, who helped transform the moral structure of society, consummate liars or deluded madmen?
Two facts must be explained. They are the empty tomb and the alleged appearances of Christ.
How can we account for the empty tomb?
The earliest explanation circulated was that the disciples stole the body. In Matthew 28:11-15, we have the record of the reaction of the chief priests and the elders when the guards gave them the infuriating and mysterious news that the body was gone. They gave the soldiers money and told them to explain that the disciples had come at night and stolen the body while they were asleep. That story is so obviously false that Matthew doesn’t even bother to refute it! What judge would listen to you if you said that while you were asleep your neighbor came into your house and stole your television set? Who knows what goes on while he’s asleep? Testimony like this would be laughed out of any court. Furthermore, we are faced with a psychological and ethical impossibility. Stealing the body of Christ would be something totally foreign to the character of the disciples and all that is known of them. It would mean that they were perpetrators of a deliberate lie which was responsible for the misleading and ultimate death of thousands of people. It is inconceivable that, even if a few of the disciples had conspired and pulled off this theft, they would never have told the others.
Each of the disciples faced the test of torture and martyrdom for his statements and beliefs. Men will die for what they believe to be true, though it may actually be false. They do not, however , die for what they know is a lie. If ever a man tells the truth, it is on his deathbed. And if the disciples had taken the body, and Christ was still dead, we would still have the problem of explaining his alleged appearances in a number of places.
A second hypothesis is that the authorities, Jewish or Roman, moved the body. But why? Having put guards at the tomb, what would be their reason for moving the body? A more convincing answer for this thesis is the silence of the authorities in the face of the apostles’ bold preaching about the resurrection in Jerusalem. The ecclesiastical leaders were seething with rage and did everything possible to prevent the spread of this message and to suppress it (Acts 4). They arrested Peter and John and beat and threatened them, in an attempt to close their mouths.
There was a very simple solution to their problem. If they had Christ’s body, they could have paraded it through the streets of Jerusalem. With this one act they would have successfully smothered Christianity in its cradle. That they did not do this bears eloquent testimony to the fact that they did not have the body.
Another popular theory has been that the women, distraught and overcome by grief, missed their way in the dimness of the morning and went to the wrong tomb. In their distress they imagined Christ had risen because the tomb was empty. This theory, however, falls before the same fact that destroys the previous one. If the women went to the wrong tomb, why did the high priests and other enemies of the faith not go to the right tomb and produce the body? Further, it is inconceivable that Peter and John would succumb to the same mistake, and certainly Joseph of Arimathea, owner of the tomb, would have solved the problem. In addition, it must be remembered that this was a private burial ground, not a public cemetery. There was no other tomb there that would have allowed them to make the mistake.
The swoon theory has also been advanced to explain the empty tomb. In this view, Christ did not actually die. He was mistakenly reported to be dead, but had swooned from exhaustion, pain, and loss of blood. When he was laid in the coolness of the tomb, he revived. He came out of the tomb and appeared to his disciples, who mistakenly thought he had risen from the dead.
This is a theory of modern construction. It first appeared at the end of the eighteenth century. It is significant that not a suggestion of this kind has come down from antiquity among all the violent attacks which have been made on Christianity. All of the earliest records are emphatic about Jesus’ death.
But let us assume for a moment that Christ was buried alive and swooned. Is it possible to believe that he would have survived three days in a damp tomb without food or water or attention of any kind? Would he have survived being wound in spice-Iaden grave clothes? Would he have had the strength to extricate himself from the grave clothes, push the heavy stone away from the mouth of the grave, overcome the Roman guards, and walk miles on feet that had been pierced with spikes?
Even the German critic, David Strauss, who by no means believes in the resurrection, rejected this idea as incredible. He says, “It is impossible that One who had just come forth from the grave, half dead, who crept about weak and ill, who stood in the need of medical treatment, of bandaging, strengthening, and tender care, and who at last succumbed to suffering, could ever have given the disciples the impression that He was a conqueror over death and the grave; that He was the Prince of Life. This lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which He had made upon them in life and in death – or at the most, could have given it an elegiac voice – but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm or elevated their reverence into worship.”1
Finally, if this theory is correct, Christ himself was involved in flagrant lies. His disciples believed and preached that he was dead but became alive again. Jesus did nothing to dispel this belief, but rather encouraged it.
The only theory that adequately explains the empty tomb is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
The second piece of data that must be explained is the recorded appearances of Christ. These occurred from the morning of his resurrection to his ascension forty days later. Ten distinct appearances are recorded. They show great variety as to time, place, and people. Two were to individuals, Peter and James. There were appearances to the disciples as a group, and one was to 500 assembled followers. The appearances were at different places. Some were in the garden near his tomb, some were in the upper room. One was on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and some were far away, in Galilee. Each appearance was characterized by different acts and words by Jesus.
For the same reasons that the empty tomb cannot be explained on the basis of lies or legends, neither can we dismiss the statement of the appearances of Christ on this basis. This is testimony given by eyewitnesses fully and profoundly convinced of the truth of their statements.
The major theory advanced to explain away the accounts of the appearances of Christ is that they were hallucinations. At first, this sounds like a plausible explanation of an otherwise supernatural event. It is plausible until we begin to realize that modern medicine has observed that certain laws apply to such psychological phenomena. As we relate these principles to the evidence at hand, we see that what at first seemed most plausible is, in fact, impossible.
Hallucinations occur generally in people who tend to be vividly imaginative and of a nervous makeup. But the appearances of Christ were to all sorts of people. True, some were possibly emotional women, but there were also hard-headed men like the fisherman, Peter, and others of various dispositions.
Hallucinations are extremely subjective and individual. For this reason, no two people have the same experience. But in the case of the resurrection, Christ appeared not just to individuals, but to groups, including one of more than 500 people. Paul says that more than half of them were still alive and could tell about these events (1 Corinthians 15).
Hallucinations usually occur only at particular times and places, and are associated with the events fancied. But these appearances occurred both indoors and outdoors, in the morning, afternoon, and evening.
Generally these psychic experiences occur over a long period of time with some regularity. But these experiences happened during a period of forty days, and then stopped abruptly. No one ever said they happened again.
But perhaps the most conclusive indication of the fallacy of the hallucinations theory is a fact often overlooked. In order to have an experience like this, one must so intensely want to believe that he projects something that really isn’t there and attaches reality to his imagination. For instance, a mother who has lost a son in the war remembers how he used to come home from work every evening at 5:30 o’clock. She sits in her rocking chair every afternoon musing and meditating. Finally, she thinks she sees him come through the door, and has a conversation with him. At this point she has lost contact with reality.
One might think that this was what happened to the disciples about the resurrection. The fact is that the opposite took place — they were persuaded against their wills that Jesus had risen from the dead!
Mary came to the tomb on the first Easter Sunday morning with spices in her hands. Why? To anoint the dead body of the Lord she loved. She was obviously not expecting to find him risen from the dead. In fact, when she first saw him she mistook him for the gardener! It was only after he spoke to her and identified himself that she realized who he was.
When the other disciples heard, they didn’t believe. The story seemed to them ”as an idle tale.”
When the Lord finally appeared to the disciples, they were frightened and thought they were seeing a ghost! They thought they were having a hallucination, and it jolted them. He finally had to tell them, “Handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” He asked them if they had any food, and they gave him a piece of broiled fish. Luke doesn’t add the obvious – ghosts don’t eat! (Luke 24:36-43).
Finally, there is the classic case of which we still speak – Thomas, the doubter. He was not present when Jesus appeared to the disciples the first time. They told him about it, but he scoffed and would not believe. In effect, he said, “I’m from Missouri. I won’t believe unless I’m shown. I’m an empiricist. Unless I can put my finger into the nail wounds in his hands and my hand into his side, I will not believe.” He wasn’t about to have a hallucination!
John gives us the graphic story (John 20) of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples eight days later. He graciously invited Thomas to examine the evidence of his hands and his side. Thomas looked at him and fell down in worship: “My Lord and my God.”
To hold the hallucination theory in explaining the appearances of Christ, one must completely ignore the evidence.
What was it that changed a band of frightened, cowardly disciples into men of courage and conviction? What was it that changed Peter from one who, the night before the Crucifixion, was so afraid for his own skin that he three times denied he even knew Jesus, into a roaring lion of the faith? Some fifty days later Peter risked his life by saying he had seen Jesus risen from the dead. He preached it in Jerusalem where the events had taken place, where the facts could be verified, and where his life was in danger. Only the reality of the bodily resurrection of Christ could have produced this change in the disciples.
Finally, there is the evidence for the resurrection which is contemporary and personal. If Jesus Christ rose from the dead, he is alive today, powerful to invade and change those who invite him into their lives. Thousands now living bear uniform testimony that their lives have been revolutionized by Jesus Christ. He has done in them what he said he would do. Jesus Christ’s invitation to “come and see” still stands. The avenue of experimentation is open to each person.
In summary, then, we can agree with Canon Westcott, for years a brilliant scholar at Cambridge, who said, “Indeed, taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no historic incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ. Nothing but the antecedent assumption that it must be false could have suggested the idea of deficiency in the proof of it.”2