Resurrection Series – Part 5 – If Jesus Died on the Cross, Did He Rise Again?

This week I’m blogging on the most climactic event in all of history: the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Is it true? Did the Bible get it right? Are there other plausible alternatives? Wading through Flannery O’Conner, myth-spinning fishermen, Homer’s Iliad, legendary body-snatchers, a crucified Judas, the Battle of Waterloo, and hallucinating ghost-whisperers, I’ll seek to convince you, before Holy Week, that the Resurrection is not just a good story, but a literal, historical reality.

Part 1 of 7 – Two Messiahs
Part 2 of 7 – To Hell With It
Part 3 of 7 – Is the Bible Just a Myth?
Part 4 of 7 – Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross?
Part 5 of 7 – If Jesus Died on the Cross, Did He Rise Again?
Part 6 of 7 – The Bible-less Resurrection
Part 7 of 7 – What the Resurrection Means

*This series is a revamped version of the one we did last year during Holy Week*

If Jesus Died on the Cross, Did He Rise Again?

So far we’ve covered two possible scenarios regarding Jesus’ death: first, that the Bible is a myth, or legend, and second, that Jesus never really died on the Cross. If either of these two scenarios are true, then the reality of the Resurrection collapses. However, by exploring and rejecting the most popular theories under each scenario, we’ve shown how unlikely they are.

Now we’ll turn to the third scenario. This one accepts that Jesus was tortured, nailed to the Cross, and most definitely killed, but then claims that he remained that way. Like Confucius, Lao Tse, Buddha, and Mohammed, this scenario professes that Jesus is still dead, that he has spoken his last word, that the Cross was the end of his story.

This scenario is probably the most popular one today, but it takes one of four distinct forms. So let’s look at each of them.

The first theory actually appears in the Bible and is known as the “Stolen Body Hypothesis.” In his Gospel account, Matthew records the Jewish leaders approaching Pontius Pilate to request extra guards at Jesus’ tomb (that is, in addition to the normal ones at every tomb.) The Jewish leaders make it clear that they want to prevent any of Jesus’ followers from stealing his body before claiming that he had risen.

Pilate grants their wish and allows the added defense. But even this wasn’t enough. For after the guards settle at the tomb, we see an explosive turn of events: an angel descends from heaven, rolls away the stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb, and tells the guards that Jesus is risen. And his body is no longer there.

Full of terror, the guards run back to the Jewish leaders and report what just happened. The leaders tell the guards not to worry. They concoct a story describing how it was in fact Jesus’ disciples who really stole his body, and the leaders bribe the soldiers to go along with the lie.

The soldiers are assured that if anyone questions the tale, the leaders would “satisfy [the skeptics], and keep [the guards] out of trouble.” According to Matthew’s account, “The soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has circulated among the Jews to the present day.”

So what’s wrong with this tale? First the guards. In ancient Rome, gravesides typically had some sort of armed protection. And these guards weren’t just ordinary men: they were trained warriors, experts in guarding the tombs. On top of that, Roman law held that the penalty for leaving the post or falling asleep at the job was death, a penalty that was rigorously enforced which is why the guards at Jesus’ tomb were so terrified. Anyone considering stealing a body from a tomb would first have to overtake these alert, armed warriors.

Second, the stone. If other first-century tomb stones provide example, the one in front of Jesus’ tomb weighed about two tons and stood more than seven feet high. It would have required at least two strong, burly men to move, maybe more.

The stone was rolled across the threshold of the door by way of a pitched track in the floor, which slanted downward and ended in a slight groove. This made it easier to roll the stone in place and lock it there, but much more difficult to roll it up and out. Even if someone made it past the guards, moving this stone would be a monumental task.

Third, the seal. In the Roman world, a string was stretched across the tomb stone and affixed on either side of it the tomb with a wax seal. If the seal was broken–or even tampered with–the guard would be punished with death, along with the culprit if he was found.

To assume that the body was stolen is to believe that the scared disciples of Jesus would risk their lives by tampering with the seal, attempting to overpower the armed guards, move the gigantic stone, and escape, body in hand, without anyone noticing. And they would do all of this to capture the dead body of their leader whom they already began to doubt.

But there’s one more interesting detail. The Gospel of John explains that when the “beloved disciple” entered the empty tomb, he looked around and saw nothing but Jesus’ folded burial cloths. Yet, “he saw, and he believed.” What was it about the tomb, or about these cloths, that convinced him Jesus was risen from the dead?

The Church fathers loved this little detail. Here’s what they wondered: if you were going to steal a body from the tomb, why would you remove the burial cloths, fold them neatly, and leave them inside? Remembering that Jesus’ skin was torn from his body during his beatings, the burial cloths would have stuck to his mangled torso. It would have been a messy, bloody job to remove the cloths, so why do it there? Why wouldn’t you instead go in, grab the body, and carry it out, cloths-in-tact?

Regardless of the guards, the stone, the seal, and the cloths, the “Stolen Body Hypothesis” still doesn’t account for the later Resurrected appearances of Jesus, which we’ll cover in a bit.

The second major theory under this scenario is the “Wrong Tomb Theory.” Like the “Wrong Person Theory” we looked at before, this one supposes that there was a mix-up with Jesus, but it involved tombs instead of bodies and happened on Easter Sunday instead of Good Friday. Believers of this theory claim that when Mary Magdalen and the other disciples found the empty tomb, they were at the wrong spot. They suffered a case of mistaken geography and went to the wrong grave.

Now, Matthew and Mark both report that at least two women, Mary Magdalen and another Mary, were at the tomb when Jesus was first placed in it. It can be assumed that this tomb was deeply important to them, perhaps the most important place in their eyes. The Master that they had given their life to was now buried in this place.

Which means it would be hard to imagine that they could somehow forget the location just two days later. Also, its incredibly difficult to believe that all the other disciples, along with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders, the Romans, and Jesus’ other friends and enemies would have all been mistaken as well.

The most damaging problem comes if you assume the theory is true. If the first witnesses really did go to the wrong tomb, then the Romans and the Jews–those desperate to end the troublesome Jesus movement–would have quickly exclaimed, “Uh, guys, over here! You’re looking in the wrong place!”

The leaders would have rushed over to the real tomb, unearthed Jesus’ corpse, and paraded it around town. They probably would have nailed it back up on a cross, taunting the early Christians by saying, “Is this the man you think is risen from the dead?! Look at him! He’s just as dead as he was a few days ago! And that’s what your fate will be unless you stop worshiping this dead fool!”

All these antagonists had to do to crush the Christian movement was produce the body of Jesus. But we have no record of anything like this ever happening. Why not? Because they couldn’t. Because they, like the surprised witnesses at the empty tomb, didn’t know where the body was.

The third major theory under this scenario is the “Hallucination Theory.” This one holds that all of the disciples were merely hallucinating when they saw visions of the Resurrected Jesus.

What are the problems with this one? First, psychologists tell us that hallucinations generally only come to people conditioned to expect them. Think of the man crawling across the desert, dying of thirst, who imagines an oasis or spring at the end of the horizon.

Yet we have no reason to believe that any of the disciples expected anything like the Resurrection. After Jesus was killed, the disciples huddled into a locked room and were disheartened, terrified, and hopeless. This wasn’t a group who expected their leader to come back to life in a couple of days. It was simply not on their radar.

Also, it’s impossible to physically interact with visions that are mere products of the mind. You can’t touch what isn’t real. But the Bible has Jesus walking for miles alongside the journeyers to Emmaus, and once there he eats and drinks with them. Later we see Jesus begging doubters to feel his wounds–he even asks the doubting Thomas to stick his hand into the hole in his side. And then we see Jesus having a beach-side fish-fry with his closest disciples. None of these things would be possible with a mental projection or hallucination.

Lastly, psychologists also point out that hallucinations are generally private and personal. But Jesus didn’t appear to just one or two people. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul boldly proclaims that the risen Jesus appeared to more than 500 people, a number that probably only included men.

“You don’t believe that Jesus is risen?” Paul essentially asked. “Then go and talk to these people who have seen him with their own eyes, many of whom are still alive. Go ask them what they saw; ask them what really happened!”

The final major theory under this scenario is the “Spiritual Resurrection Theory.” This one is quite popular among theologians and academics today. It suggests that Jesus’ “Resurrection” was just a spiritual awakening among the disciples, and that the “appearances” of Jesus were really just the spirit of Jesus or a collective vision of him. Alternatively, some say that Jesus’ Resurrection means simply that he was “resurrected in the minds of and hearts of his followers.”

The most immediate problem with this theory is this: where is the body? If the Resurrection is just a vision, just a symbol, or just a great memory, then the body of Jesus must have still existed. This theory would therefore require that the “Stolen Body Hypothesis” must also be true.

The other problem is the later appearances of Jesus. If he was just a ghost or a spirit–which the disciple Thomas initially believed him to be–then we’re faced with the same problems as in the “Hallucination Theory”: how could a ghost interact with the physical world, eating with, drinking with, and touching other human beings?

For the “Spiritual Resurrection Theory” to hold sway, Jesus’ body must have been stolen and his after-death appearances were not physical. However, both of these requirements have already been shown to be untenable. Therefore this theory is empty as well.

Next we’ll turn to Part 6 – The Bible-less Resurrection where we show how the Resurrection can be proved even without recourse to Scripture.

Sources for the Series
Fr. Robert Barron’s work influences pretty much everything I write or teach. So if I didn’t get something from any of the sources below, I probably got it from him.