Christ's Resurrection - Hoax or History?
By Neil Earle
Just how important is the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
To the apostle Paul it was the hinge doctrine for the first-century Church: “If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
Yet Lord Darling, former Chief Justice of England, stated, “No intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the resurrection story is true.”
Lord Lyndhurst, Attorney General for Great Britain and three times High Chancellor of England, confessed in his private papers, “I know pretty well what evidence is; and I tell you, such evidence as that for the Resurrection has never broken down yet.”
Many would not agree with these claims today.
Many infallible proofs
Luke, the author of the book of Acts claimed to be a painstaking researcher. He put the case for Jesus’ escape from death confidently: “He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them [the disciples] during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
But how can you be sure?
Faith in the resurrection of Christ is not, according to Paul, just an interesting sidelight of speculation. It is the foundation of the Christian faith itself (1 Corinthians 15:17-18)!
With so much at stake we can never get tired of asking: Just what is the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Did it really happen? Can it be solidly proven? Or is it, as some people believed in Peter’s day, and some still charge today, a “cunningly devised fable” (2 Peter 1:16)?
To demonstrate the factual evidence for the resurrection, we shall examine the main charges against it.
Fact or fable?
Four cardinal ideas emerged across history to explain away the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here they are:
- The Swoon Theory:Jesus didn’t really die, but faked a death on the cross, rallied later on, conned His disciples and lived out His life elsewhere.
- The Theft Theory: The disciples or other sympathizers stole the body and spread the rumor that Christ was resurrected. This is the oldest counter-claim, as we shall see.
- The Hallucination Theory: The disciples were the victims of mass hysteria or some other psychological disorder.
- The Robber Theory: A group of robbers plundered the tomb or pilfered the wrong one by mistake.
Let’s consider first what constitutes admissible evidence. Professor Ernest Kevan states, “for the establishment of an alleged historical fact no documents are esteemed to be more valuable than contemporary letters.”
That is exactly what the four gospels claim to be: eyewitness testimony set to writing (Luke 1:1-4, John 19:35).
Now let us examine the four persistent arguments against the resurrection and learn the encouraging truth: Jesus Christ’s conquest of death is one of the most well-attested and verifiable facts both of logic and of history!
Did Jesus really die?
It is a bold question, and a dagger aimed at the very vitals of Christianity: Could Jesus Christ have faked a death on the cross? Could He, the greatest moral teacher who ever lived, have lived out a lie? Did Christ, by some amazing cunning tactic, fool His fanatical antagonists during a public execution?
These ideas surfaced in the earliest Christian centuries in “The Gnostic Gospels,” and are the subject of story and cinema, from scholarly books such as The Passover Plot, to Jesus Christ Superstar, to The Last Temptation of Christ, to the more recent Da Vinci Code phenomenon. However fascinating this theory, upon serious study and analysis of all the evidence, it completely breaks down.
As Paul argued before King Agrippa, “This thing was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). Mark 15:29 states that the execution of Jesus Christ was a public spectacle. Christ’s foes were the chief leaders and officials of Judea (Mark 15:1). Pontius Pilate himself, the Roman procurator, double-checked to verify the death of Christ (verses 44-45). The Roman writer Tacitus mentioned the execution of Jesus in his Annals (xv.44).
John 19:23 and Mark 15:39 indicate that at least four Roman soldiers, including a veteran centurion, were in charge of the execution. Depend on it: Hardened occupation troops of the Roman Empire knew what death was.
Pilate’s surprise that Christ had already died is not mentioned to show Jesus as a physical weakling. Rather, it showed that the brutal scourging, which preceded crucifixion, was carried out most severely in His case. By some estimates only one in 10 people ever survived a Roman scourging.
“Although the Hebrews limited by their law the number of strokes in a scourging to 40, the Romans set no such limitation: and the victim was at the mercy of his scourgers,” one authority tells us.
Indications are that the soldiers detailed to “prepare” Christ for scourging were a most vile collection (Mark 15:19). Undoubtedly Jesus had not slept the night before. No wonder He fell under the weight of the cross and may had had to be carried to Golgotha (verses 21-22).
Consider this: Would the bloodthirsty Jerusalem hierarchy, so eager to deal Christ and His disciples a smashing blow, allow Christ, once in their clutches, to “fake” death? Not likely.
British author John Stott demolishes the swoon theory with sheer common sense. He asks if we are to believe “that after the rigors and pain of trial, mockery, flogging and crucifixion, He could survive in a stone sepulcher with neither food nor warmth nor medical care? That He could then rally to perform the super-human feat of shifting the boulder which secured the mouth of the tomb without disrupting the Roman guard? That He could appear to the disciples in such a way as to give them the impression that He had vanquished death? Such credulity is more incredible than Thomas’ unbelief” (Basic Christianity, pages 49-49).
Taking all the strands of testimony into account, it is evident that Jesus Christ did die on the stake.
The oldest argument advanced against the resurrection still surfaces occasionally today. This is the intriguing theory that the disciples stole the body.
This thesis originated immediately after the event.
Because the one crowning blow to disprove Christ’s resurrection would be for the chief priests to produce the corpse, to show the dead body and end the “myth” Peter and the other disciples were propagating. Why didn’t the Jewish rulers do that? It would have stopped Christianity dead in its tracks.
Because Christ’s body couldn’t be found! It had changed into a spiritual body, recognizably human but composed of a different substance that could walk through rock walls – and the religious leaders were confounded.
Enter the theft theory:
“Some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, ‘Tell them, “His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.” And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure.’ So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day” (Matthew 28:11-15).
But this is refuted by simple logic.
In the first place, if the guards were sleeping, how did they know who had stolen the body?
Secondly, the guard was set to prevent this very thing from happening.
Christ’s enemies actually over-reached themselves. They took every precaution to stamp out Christ and His movement. But their own stringent security measures became the most devastating blow against their own propaganda. Notice the sequence of events starting the day after the crucifixion:
“On the next day…the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate, saying, ‘Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, “After three days I will rise.” Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night and steal Him away, and say to the people, “He has risen from the dead.” So the last deception will be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard” (Matthew 27:62-66).
Apparently this was a Roman guard, from the Jerusalem cohort. If so, based on Roman military procedure, it could have numbered between 10 and 30 men (Albert Roper, Did Jesus Rise From The Dead? page 24).
And let’s understand: Roman historians record that the penalty for quitting a post without leave was death. This explains why the guard went to the chief priests first, for protection from the Roman procurator.
What an amazing turn of events! When had a crucified man ever had the honor of being guarded by a squad of soldiers?
Also, as one scholar adds, “Soldiers cold-blooded enough to gamble over a dying victim’s cloak are not the kind of men to be hoodwinked by timid Galileans or to jeopardize their Roman necks by sleeping on their posts.” The priests actually outsmarted themselves.
“Thus did the zealous enemies of Jesus unwittingly prepare in advance an unanswerable challenge to their subsequent explanation of the resurrection” (Roper, pages 24-33).
The hallucination theory
In this age of pop psychology, variations on this theme are popular and will continue to arise. None will stand the weight of the documentary evidence against it.
Even a casual reading of the gospels will point out that the disciples were caused to believe against their will (Luke 24:11). “Doubting Thomas” is a proverb of the English language.
The disciples of the four gospels revealed themselves to be rugged, practical men. Christ rebuked them often for their lack of sensitivity and slowness to believe (Matthew 16:21-23). The disciples displayed not one iota of the morbid excitement of the nervous system that causes mass hysteria. They were very much men of this world, not given to flights of imagination.
The swirling events of crucifixion week didn’t even leave them time for the long psychological preparation necessary for hallucinations to take root. Their moods varied: John was stunned but dutiful (John 19:26-27); Peter was torn by guilt and remorse (Luke 22:62); Thomas was skeptical (John 20:25); two were distracted and numbed (Luke 24:13-17).
How likely is it that two or more people would have the same hallucination? Not to mention 11 or even 500 (I Corinthians 15:6).
And why did the alleged visions stop so suddenly?
Christ’s post-resurrection appearances were not fleeting glances of a phantom, but more like prolonged interviews, as both John 21 and Luke 24 bring out. Matthew 28:9 says the faithful women actually held the resurrected Lord by his feet. On three occasions these “hallucinations” were not even recognized as Christ (Luke 24:16, John 20:15, 21:4).
Depend on it: The disoriented disciples of crucifixion week were light years apart from the daring dynamos that turned the world upside down a mere 50 days later. One can only call it miraculous. The witness of the disciples themselves attests to the most startling event of all history – the resurrection.
Thieves and grave clothes
Some fantasize about grave-robbers stealing Christ’s body. But this theory runs flat up against the documented fact of the hard-nosed Roman guard at the tomb.
This bears directly on what John saw in Christ’s tomb.
One scholar showed that first-century Jews, in preparing a body for burial, did exactly what Christ’s friends (John 19:40) did with His corpse:
“It was usually washed and straightened, and then bandaged tightly from the arm to the ankles in strips of linen about a foot wide. Aromatic spices often of gummy consistency were placed between the wrappings or folds. They served partially as a preservative and partly as a cement to glue the cloth wrappings into a solid covering…John’s term ‘bound’ is in perfect accord with Luke 23:53 where the writer says the body was wrapped in linen” (Merrill C. Tenney, The Reality of the Resurrection, pages 116-117).
That is why Lazarus had to be helped out of his grave clothes. The one-foot strips of cloth and the spicy cement actually meant the corpse was laid almost in a soft body-cast, as we would describe it today. There were also 100 pounds of spices packed around Christ’s linen “cocoon” (John 19:39).
And what does all this mean?
Just this: If Jesus Christ was resuscitated, simply revived to normal physical life, He would have had to remove the tightly packed bandages from around His body. The grave clothes would have been torn or at least unwound. But that is not what John records. He is telling us in John 20:5-7 that the body clothes collapsed under the weight of the spices. The face-cloth the Jews wrapped around a corpse’s head (John 11:44) was separate from the bandages, like a twirled turban. There was a gap between the linen clothes and the face-cloth. Exactly what you would expect – if the dead body of Christ had changed from flesh and blood to another form!
It was the undisturbed condition of the grave clothes that attracted John’s attention that morning. There would have been little point in mentioning it so emphatically otherwise.
The plain truth was that Christ’s grave clothes were left perfectly intact because He sat up through them and walked out of them! His body was no longer flesh and blood but a glorified body (John 20:19; Philippians 3:21).
No robber stole the body or the grave clothes. Indeed, the way the grave clothes were lying (John used the word twice in chapter 20) convinced John that Jesus had been resurrected.
What an amazingly vivid eye-witness testimony we have in the four gospels! There is truly more going on in the gospels than at first meets the eye. They are written so we can believe. How about you? Do you believe? God help us all to believe even more!