Some things are harder to believe than others. Believing that Jesus was a bona fide historical figure… few, if any, seriously doubt there really was a Jesus of Nazareth who preached a message of repentance and reconciliation with God and was later crucified (even if many attempt to redefine the purpose of these events).
Then, there’s the resurrection…
For a lot of people, this is far more difficult an idea to swallow, particularly those of us who were raised on a steady diet of empirical naturalism.
The idea that Jesus was crucified—we can accept that. But that He rose again? That’s a bit much, isn’t it? Surely it had to have been made up.
Three alternatives to the resurrection
Because we don’t have a category for the supernatural, we look for alternative explanations—and there are a LOT of alternatives floating around regarding the resurrection of Jesus. Yet, there’s a lot of consistency between them, with the majority being variations on one of three options:
1. The disciples made it up.
The most common version of this theory suggests the early disciples stole Jesus’ body from the tomb in order to perpetuate the notion that Jesus really did rise again… but the disciples knew full well He was dead.
The earliest version of this is actually found in Matthew 28:11-15, where we read:
…some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. (emphasis mine)
The “conspiracy” theory, while among the oldest alternatives to the resurrection, is also among the easiest to debunk as even a casual observer will recognize there are more holes in this plot than in a Michael Bay movie.
How would a small group of fishermen overpower Roman soldiers? The guards came to the priests to tell them what happened—doesn’t this suggest the tomb actually was empty? And considering the sincerity of the disciples in the face of horrific persecution, do you really think they could have kept up a conspiracy like that to the grave—especially considering they didn’t seem to have enough wits about them to get the basics of what Jesus was teaching them most of the time?
2. Mass hallucinations.
This one attempts to explain Jesus appearing to multitudes of men and women as wishful thinking. The grief stricken disciples were so overcome that they began to “see” Him… but He didn’t really rise from the grave. At best, He “lived on in their hearts”—Jesus had a metaphorical or spiritual resurrection, but the real Jesus was surely rotting in a grave somewhere. This is where notable figures such as John Dominic Crossan and the Bahá’ís.
Again, the problems here are numerous. Hallucinations tend to be the product of a single mind, not a shared event. Secondly, if the disciples were all having a shared hallucination but Jesus’ body was still in its tomb (the location of which was known at the time), why not just bring out the body? Thirdly, as author and UK church leader Adrian Warnock (who is a psychiatrist by training) notes, hallucinations tend to make one weak, rather than embolden. To suggest that hallucinations drove the disciples to boldly preach the gospel throughout the Roman Empire “is completely inconsistent with the results of hallucinations as described in any medical textbook” (Raised with Christ, 51).
3. Jesus didn’t really die on the cross.
This one is best known as the “swoon” theory. The gist of this is that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, but was only badly injured. One should note, however, that it was a cross, not a fainting couch.
It’s helpful (and necessary) to remember the events leading up to the crucifixion, as well as what happened during it:
- Jesus was beaten multiple times;
- His hands and feet were pierced with spikes; and
- He was stabbed through the side with a spear.
He was then examined by an expert, declared dead, wrapped in burial clothes, laid in a tomb and left for multiple days. Even if on the off chance He somehow survived and was only very badly injured, He surely would have died due to lack of medical assistance while in the tomb.
Then, after all that, Jesus goes for a seven mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Looking at a brief survey of the evidence, one can agree with Matt Chandler’s assessment of this theory: “Only an idiot could believe that.”
The heart of the matter
When we look at the alternatives, the only compelling option that remains is the truth that Jesus really did rise from the dead—and this is the great hope of the Christian faith.
It’s not enough that Jesus died on the cross. All the promises of the Bible hinge on His resurrection:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.
For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only,we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:12-19, emphasis mine)
Yes, Jesus really did have to rise again
Everything hinges on the resurrection. If Jesus is not alive, then we don’t really have a message to preach. We might have a good example, but not a great Savior. Adrian Warnock, again, summarizes our need well:
Without the resurrection we would still be in our sins. Without the resurrection we are lost and there is no hope! There is no salvation without a living Jesus. We need the resurrection to have its power-generating effect inside of us if we are to be born again. We really are “saved by his life” (Romans 5:10). (Raised with Christ, 67)
And this is the good news of Easter—not just that Jesus died, but Jesus really did rise again. He is, right now, at the right hand of the Father, interceding on behalf of those who believe in Him. And He really is coming again one day soon to bring a final end to sin, suffering and death and usher in His perfect Kingdom.