The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is referred to directly more than a hundred times in the New Testament. Paul refers to it in I Cor.15:1-8 as one of the essential and foundational truths of the gospel: “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By which gospel you are saved. If you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all He appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born”.
It is very significant that Paul does not merely refer to witnesses who have already died, but to many who were still alive and could be questioned.
When the apostles chose a replacement for Judas his replacement had to be, “A witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1: 21-22).
The accounts of the resurrection show clear evidence for eyewitness accounts. There are too many agreements for them not to be referring to the same event; while at the same time apparent contradictions give clear evidence that these accounts could not be agreed upon fabrications.
I say “apparent” contradictions because upon closer investigation these “contradictions vanish. In a court of law the strongest evidence is from witnesses who agree on the main points while having apparent contradictions that upon further probing disappear. The writers would have been aware of these apparent discrepancies but did not change them.
The first point of the gospel message is that Christ died for our sins. One thing we know for certain is that the Roman military knew how to kill by execution. If there was any doubt about crucifixion doing its job of bringing about the death sentence a lance was thrust under the ribs into the victims heart. Crucifixion was a cruel and horrible form of execution. Square spikes were driven into the wrists and heel bones of the feet. Then it became a sadistic game of survival.
If the nails were only through the wrists the body would sag and cut off breathing and quickly cause death by asphyxiation. In order to prolong the agony, the feet were nailed through the second metatarsal, giving a cruel “support” for the body enabling the victim to breath with great struggle, by pulling the body up by the nailed hands and pushing up by the nailed feet; thereby tearing his lacerated back against the rough wood of the cross. As the hours wore on under the hot sun, the body became dehydrated from perspiring and loss of blood then fatigue would set in. Then, sometimes after days of struggling, the victim would be unable to pull and push himself up to breath and suffocate.
If they wanted death to take place quickly they would simply break their legs just below the knees making it impossible to push up with the feet and they would quickly suffocate. Then the executioner had to certify the death of the victim. If the executioner got it wrong it could cost him his life. But they did not get it wrong. The victim was clearly dead before they took him down from the cross. The fact of his death would have been obvious; the victim was simply not pulling himself up to breath! There was no reviving in the tomb.
The fact that the tomb was empty that first Easter morning is indisputable. That left only two options: The tomb was empty because the body was stolen or because Jesus rose from the dead. Who would have taken it? There were only two options: either His enemies or His friends.
His enemies? Why? They had nothing to gain. As a prank or some other perverse reason? If so, then they would have been in the enviable position to refute the claim that He rose from the dead and make a laughingstock of His disciples? Why didn’t they? Because they couldn’t: it’s that simple.
But— what about His friends? For one thing there was a Roman Guard posted outside the tomb (Matt. 27: 65). The guard consisted of four well-trained soldiers who would be relieved every six hours.
Imagine stepping over these guards and rolling away the huge stone without alerting them, even if there WERE asleep, for which they would have forfeited their lives. The watch was for too short of time to worry about trained soldiers falling asleep. Especially ALL of them! And if anyone were caught trying to steal the body it would mean a torturous death.
Rome was an occupying army and they ruled with an iron fist. The disciples did not want to be anywhere near a Roman soldier. They were not interested in taking Jesus’ body they were interested in their own safety. If Rome had executed their leader, how far away could their arrests be?
If the disciples had stolen His body, would they have gone all over the Mediterranean world preaching His resurrection, facing torture and death? Would they have been willing to die for what they would have known was a lie? People may die for what they THINK is true, but not for what they KNOW is a lie!
The disciples were totally transformed from fear and despair and hiding behind closed doors, to fearlessly facing death by boldly facing their enemies with the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. This is perhaps the most significant fact of all. At the time of Jesus crucifixion the disciples were filled with hopeless despair and fear. Peter, the leader of the apostles denied that he knew Jesus with oaths and curses, but a few days later we see this same man and all the others facing the wrath of Rome with unshakeable courage.
Nothing can account for the change in Paul who was transformed from a persecutor of Christians to an apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul first comes upon the scene as a blasphemer of Christ who is suddenly converted by the resurrected Savior Himself. He disappears to Arabia to prepare for his ministry where he was taught by the risen Lord and then reappears to proclaim the message of a risen Savior with the same intensity that he once fought against it.
From the very beginning the resurrection of Jesus was vital to apostolic teaching. It was the motivating force of Paul’s life and ministry.
His conversion was not only the turning point in his own life, but also in the history of the church and thus, the history of mankind. Alongside the achievements of this former persecutor of Christians, blasphemer and murderer, all the achievements of those whom the world holds to be great fade into insignificance. The only explanation for the life of this man is that he had met the risen Savior and was forever changed.
Writing from prison at the end of his life Paul wrote: “So do not be ashamed to testify about the Lord, or ashamed of me His prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel. By the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of His own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who has destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher of the Gentiles. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him for that day” (II Tim. 1: 8-12).
Paul traded his high position of wealth and respect as a Pharisee for poverty, prison and persecution. Paul had met the resurrected Savior and served Him for 25 years and was used of God to write a third of the New Testament. This is irrefutable evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The other apostles who were commissioned by the resurrected Christ to preach the gospel faced severe persecution and torture until they were executed and sealed their testimonies with their blood.
Shortly after Jesus had been executed as a criminal and His disciples were on the run, something happened that changed the Christian movement from one facing extinction to a movement exploding like wildfire. It has spread to every country on earth with the message of God’s love and power to save. What had happened? They had seen the risen Lord.
From Israel’s beginning the Jews had kept the Sabbath to honor God’s finished work as creator. No work was allowed as it was set aside as a memorial day, set apart by God when He ceased creating.
Those first Christians were devout Jews. They were so convinced of the resurrection of Jesus that they changed the day of worship from the Sabbath to the first day of the week honoring God’s work of redemption. They could not ignore Jesus resurrection from the dead. They called it the Lord’s day. It became a celebration of the “rest” we have in Christ from sin and death. God gave the early church a new pattern of worship through Christ’s resurrection on the first day of the week and His resurrection appearances and the Holy Spirit’s descent on the first day of the week.
Jesus had fulfilled all the types and shadows of the law. His sacrifice as the “Lamb of God” superseded and therefore fulfilled all the Old Testament types and symbols.
Other theories have been advanced to explain the empty tomb. One theory that liberal scholars came up with is “the wrong tomb theory”. Which theorized that because of the chaos caused by Jesus hurried burial because of the dawning of the Sabbath, and the fact that the women came back very early Sunday, in the din morning light. They became confused where Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was located and entered the wrong tomb and found it empty, whereupon hearing the grave-keeper, whom they mistook for an angel, say, “He is not here”, they became hysterical and ran away announcing an empty tomb and the rest is history! Or is it?
Surely it would not have taken long, once the story got out, for the people to see their error, or for Joseph to point out his tomb for them. Certainly the Roman guard would have been happy to tell them their mistake. Even the Sanhedrin would have been happy to straighten them out. And most certainly Peter and John would not have run to the wrong tomb!
Another theory that is advanced is what is called the “Swoon Theory”. According to this theory Jesus never really died. Somebody slipped Him a very powerful drug putting Him in a coma-state; giving the appearance of death. Then after His burial He revived in the cool, damp tomb and changing into grave clothes left there by the gardener and removing the large stone shaped like a wheel weighing as must as two tons.
Then He crawled out of the tomb and happened to run into Mary Magdalene, who ran and told His disciples, who nursed Him back to health as best they could and then they declared Him to be the risen Lord, but forty days later He succumbed to His wounds. Before He died He called His disciples to meet Him on a mountain and then disappeared into a cloud that they believed was His ascension into heaven! The soldiers had seen hundreds of victims of crucifixion. It was routine for them to know when a man was dead. He simply was not rising up and down to breathe!
Then there is the psychological theory, which says that the disciples missed Jesus so much that they subconsciously invented His resurrection in order to feel His presence psychologically. Then they began to imagine seeing Him, including more than 500 at one time!
Some say that the disciples were referring to a spiritual resurrection. But this was unknown to Jews and Christians. Resurrection can only apply to the body because only the body dies. Only in second century gnostic text do historians find the concept of a spiritual resurrection.
Those who claim a spiritual resurrection base on a misunderstanding of Scripture. I Cor. 15:44 referring to the resurrection body says: “It is sown (buried) a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body”. But the contrast here is not between a physical or material body and a spiritual or immaterial body but between a carnal or sinful body subject to death and a body that is sinless and not subject to death—one that is immortal. The same contrast is found in Romans 7:14: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin”. This is a difference between sinful and sinless, not material and immaterial.
Then there is the twin brother theory with the predictable outcome. Jesus’ twin brother pops up after Jesus death and claims to be the risen Lord. Or His twin brother is crucified thinking it was Jesus and then the real Jesus appears. The remaining theories are just as flimsy as these and not worthy of consideration. The resurrection of Jesus is the only explanation for the empty tomb that first Easter morning.
Many today assume that the ancients were quick to believe what we now know to be unscientific claims of people rising from the dead; but this is not true, especially with the Jews. They did believe in a resurrection but this was a general resurrection at the end of history, as Martha said to Jesus after he told her that her dead brother, Lazarus would rise again: “Martha answered, I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24).
There were others in the first century who claimed to be the Messiah and were executed. But with none of them was there a mention of a resurrection. They knew better. It was not even considered. Nor was it with Jesus own followers—at first, until they saw Him in His resurrected body. There never could have been a belief in His resurrection among the Jews without His appearing to them.
They walked with Him and talked with Him and saw and touched His wounds. The Christian movement sprang up immediately after His death because they saw Him in His resurrected body.
A very significant change came about in Israel’s social institutions for those first century Jewish Christians. The sacrificial system, the Sabbath, Circumcision, were all abandoned. A mere 5 weeks after His crucifixion, more than ten thousand Jews were following Him as the Son of God.
These were not minor adjustments but monumental changes in social structures of thousands of years. The apostle Paul tells us that everything in the Christian life depended on the resurrection of Christ: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (I Cor. 15:17).
Peter writes: “Praise be to the God and Father Of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (I Pet. 1:3).
When the Apostle John was imprisoned on the island of Patmos he again saw the glorified Christ. He writes: “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet though dead. Then He placed His right hand on me and said: ‘do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!’” (Rev. 1:18).