According to the New Testament, especially the Gospels, God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. This event is referred to in Christian terminology as the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and is commemorated and celebrated by most Christians each year at Easter. Most Christians accept the New Testament story as an historical account of an actual event central to their faith, although some liberal Christians do not accept a literal bodily resurrection. Non-Christians generally view the story as legend or allegory.
The Biblical account
The primary accounts of the resurrection are in the Gospels: the last chapter of Matthew, of Mark, and of Luke, as well as the last two chapters of John. However, there are two extant endings to Mark, neither of which is probably the original (see Mark 16).
All these accounts agree that Jesus was killed by crucifixion and placed in a tomb (belonging to Joseph of Arimathea). After observing the Sabbath, some of Jesus' female followers returned to the tomb, to complete the burial rites. When they arrived they discovered that the body was gone, and they returned with some of the male disciples.
Jesus then makes a series of appearances to the disciples, with the most notable being to Thomas and the other disciples in the upper room (Luke 20:26-31), along the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32), and beside the Sea of Galilee to reinstate Peter (John 21:1-23). His final appearance is reported as being forty days after the resurrection when he ascended into heaven (Luke 24:44-49).
However, when compared, the accounts give different details and are difficult to reconcile into a single sequence of events. For example, Michael Ramsey (the former Archbishop of Canterbury) stated: "That we should expect to be able to weave the stories into a chronological and geographical plan seems inconceivable" (The Resurrection of Christ 1946). These discrepancies have therefore been used to question the authenticity of the biblical account of the resurrection. Christians have answered by noting that multiple eyewitnesses to any event tend to give conflicting accounts, and that unanimous agreement would be indication of contrivance, not authenticity. There are also various suggested ways in which the accounts could be reconciled. These arguments are further discussed below.
As the resurrection of Jesus is one of the most important events for Christianity, there are many references to it in the rest of the New Testament. Both Peter (Acts 2:22-32) and Paul (1 Corinthians 15:19) argue that this event was the cornerstone of Christianity, and may be seen to some extent as providing witness to the resurrection independent of the Gospel accounts. Indeed, nearly every New Testament book speaks of Jesus' death and resurrection, a telling fact in that many were written independent of each other both geographically and socially. Other important New Testament references (quoted from TNIV) include:
Acts 4:10 "then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed."
Romans 4:25 "He [Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification."
1 Corinthians 6:14 "By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also."
Galatians 1:1 "Paul, an apostle—sent not with a human commission nor by human authority, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead".
1 Peter 1:21 "Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God."
Main article: Jesus and textual evidence
Some of the earliest records of the resurrection outside the New Testament are found in the writings of Ignatius (50 - 115), Polycarp (69 - 155) Justin Martyr (100 - 165), and Tertullian (160 - 220). The letter of the Romans to the Corinthians was probably written by Pope Clement I around AD 96 and speaks of the resurrection at length.
As well as a number of passing references, Ignatius also give two more extended discussions on the resurrection of Jesus. The first is in the Letter to the Trallians (9:1-2):
- "Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified and died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, his Father having raised him up, as in the same manner his Father will raise up us who believe in him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life."
The second is in the Letter to the Smyrnaeans (1:1-3:3), of which 2:1a says:
- "Now, he suffered all these things for our sake, that we might be saved. And he truly suffered, even as he truly raised himself up; not as certain unbelievers say, that he suffered in semblance, they themselves only existing in semblance."
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus is reputed to have written in 93 that Jesus "appeared to [the disciples] alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold". However, this is a highly controversial passage, which was at least edited by a later Christian scribe (see Josephus on Jesus for more information).
The Qur'an states that Jesus was not killed or resurrected: "yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them" (Qur'an 4:156). However, as this was not written until the 7th century it cannot be considered authoritative, unless one accepts the Muslim belief in an eternal, uncreated Qur'an.
The Roman historian, Tacitus is often cited as an authority. However, the passage only mentions the historical existence of a "Christus", who was put to death under Pontius Pilate. No mention is made of the resurrection (see Tacitus on Jesus). Suetonius also mentions a rebel named "Chrestus" [sic], who is frequently equated with Christ, but places him during Claudius' reign (see Suetonius on Jesus).
Significance of the resurrection
Most Christians, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant believe in the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus and accept the New Testament reports as historical accounts of an actual event central to their faith. The resurrection is included in all the main Christian Creeds (including the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed) as a fundamental tenet of belief.
However, even amongst Christians who believe in the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus there are a wide variety of theological interpretations on how the death and resurrection of Jesus grants salvation to humanity.
This is the traditional view, still held by many Christians today. This view emphasizes God as Judge. Humanity had sinned and God was therefore required, in his justice, to punish humankind. However, God sent his Son, who was sinless, to take the sin of the world on his shoulders, so that anyone who accepted the gift of Jesus's act could be freed from the consequences of his sin, without violating God's judgment.
This view of the theological significance of Jesus's resurrection is analogous to the Jewish Day of Atonement, by which the sins of the Israelites were put onto a flawless scapegoat, who was then released into the wilderness, taking the sins of the people with him.
The Christus Victor view, to which a minority of Christians ascribe, holds that Jesus was sent by God to defeat death and Satan. Because of his perfection and voluntary death Jesus defeated Satan and death, and arose victorious. Therefore humanity was no longer bound in sin, but was free to rejoin God through faith in Jesus.
In contrast to the Judicial view, the Christus Victor model emphasizes a spiritual battle between good and evil. The Juridical view requires Christians to believe that God voluntarily punished Jesus for their sins whereas the Christus Victor view sees humanity as in the power of Satan, who was defeated by Jesus. and God, through Jesus, broke us out of Satan's power. The Christus Victor view has also been used to argue that Jesus defeated sin and death for everyone, whether or not they hear of Jesus, granting non-Christians the chance of eternal life (or a guarantee thereof, depending on the particular theology in question).
First Man view
The First Man view, held by a small minority of Christians and some Pelagians, states that Jesus was a person just like the rest of humanity, but due to his remarkable faith, purity, sinlessness, and perfection, he earned eternal life, and was resurrected because Death could not hold him. They also believe that by following his teachings and example others may also ultimately earn eternal life.
The First Man view can be compared with the Old-Testament stories of Enoch and Elijah, who walked with God to such a degree of faithfulness that they were not required to die. Enoch 'was no more,' and Elijah was carried in a Chariot of Flame. In the same way, Jesus was faithful to such a degree, that even though he was killed, his Faith earned him Eternal Life. And in the same way, if we are radically faithful to the same degree, we can also be free from death.
Under the influence of modernity, many Liberal Christians, including Rudolf Bultmann and John Shelby Spong, consider the historicity of the resurrection to be irrelevant to its significance as a religious symbol of hope, and accept it as a richly symbolic and spiritually nourishing myth. People holding this view generally deny that Jesus was literally and bodily resurrected. They certainly deny that it matters. According to them, the fundamental difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is a subjective one, centered upon how a person responds to the myth: making the resurrection a matter not of history, but of religious attitude. This rejection of the essentially historical nature of the resurrection of Jesus is one of the issues that have divided orthodox Pauline Christians on the one side from Modernist Christianity, which denies that belief in historical factuality is defensible, but accepts that belief in the resurrection is nevertheless essential to Christian faith. Those who believe that the resurrection must be accepted as a fact of history, and in those terms essential to Christianity, often cannot regard as genuine Christians those who view the resurrection as an unhistorical myth.
Non-Christians do not accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus. They therefore either agree with liberal Christians that the resurrection was a devoutly held, powerful myth (for instance, Carl Jung suggests in his essay "The Answer to Job" that the crucifixion-resurrection story was the forceful spiritual symbol of, literally, God-as-Yahweh becoming God-as-Job), or believe that it is some form of fiction, resulting from wishful thinking or fraud on the part of his followers or some other party. For example the author Gérald Messadié writes in his book The man who became God that Jesus was taken off the cross before he died (by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) and could therefore appear to his disciples afterwards.
The historicity of the resurrection
As with all historical events before the past few hundred years, the issue of historicity is an important aspect of any person's belief in the actual occurrence of the resurrection. In contrast with scientific phenomena for which reproducibility and falsifiability are essential, historical phenomena depend on different criteria, such as uniqueness of occurrence, plausibility of circumstances, and testimony of witnesses.
Christians who defend the resurrection's historicity cite the following, among other evidence:
- Multiple eyewitness accounts - different people, different times, different situations, all seeing the resurrected Jesus, eating with him, talking with him.
- Eyewitnesses who were willing to suffer and die for their testimonies, which ends any chance of false motives for their testimonies.
- The Gospels state that the early witnesses to the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus were women, whose testimony was not regarded as credible in the patriarchal Judaism of that period. If the resurrection stories were invented, one would not expect this: a hoax or conspiracy would have used men as these early witnesses. An honest account, on the other hand, would have described what was true, however inconvenient it was.
- Lack of protests against the empty tomb. That is, apparently the tomb was indeed empty on the Sunday of the resurrection.
- Who could find a whole group of people willing to concoct a wild lie, be tortured and killed for it, and not have one of them tell the truth to escape death?
- The morality of Jesus and his disciples.
- The relatively poor educational level of the disciples (most were fishermen), which would make the devising of an elaborate cover-up difficult.
- The radical change of Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul.
- The birth and rapid spread of the early church, all from people who were originally hiding in fear.
- The Bible openly declared that the resurrection had over 500 witnesses, many still alive at the time. This open declaration was in the face of non-Christians who could respond to the charge.
- The Jewish Scriptures contain many statements that Christians have interpreted as saying that God would take a body, die for sins and rise again
- The early dates for most of the New Testament.
- Jesus fulfilled many Jewish prophecies. The probability of the fulfillment of all of them by chance is extremely small and best accounted for as a miracle. This ought to prompt us to take more seriously the possibility of a second miracle, the resurrection.
- The experiences of millions of Christians worldwide today, who claim to have met Jesus personally and experience the Spirit which he promised would come.
- Negative accounts of Jesus' disciples in the New Testament resurrection stories. Jesus' disciples became the leaders of Christianity after Jesus' death, and yet the resurrection stories speak poorly of their belief and understanding when Jesus met with them after rising. If the stories were concocted, why would they include such negative portrayals of themselves?
- The uniqueness of the New Testament descriptions of the resurrection as throughly bodily and physical. Most, if not all, resurrection stories of antiquity emphasize the immortality of their hero's soul. This is indicative of a general philosophical culture that looked harshly on physicality and emphasized the value of the soul/spirit over body.
- A general acceptance by a majority of biblical scholars and historians that Jesus' disciples at least thought they met Jesus after he died (although scholars still disagree as to if they actually saw a physical Jesus, a poser, a vision, or "something" else).
Occam's Razor: that Jesus really did rise and appear to his disciples is a very simple and complete explanation for the complex events that came later: the actions of the disciples, the unique rise of Christianity as a Jewish sect (many other would-be Messiahs and movements had appeared and quickly disappeared in 1st century Palestine), the continued significance of Christianity, etc. This is also known as the "smoke-and-fire" argument (Graham Stanton) - where there is smoke there is fire. The "smoke" of events that came after Jesus' life have to be in part explained by a genuine fire - the authenticity of Jesus as Messiah. Note: this point is not acceptable to those holding a materialist philosophical presupposition and therefore deny a priori the existence of miracles. In this case, supposing a miracle is actually complicating the argument by adding an obtuse variable.
This last point also reveals the vast importance of philosophical and theological presuppositions when evaluating the evidence for or against Jesus' resurrection. A materialist philosophy, for instance, automatically rules out the possibility of Jesus actually dying and miraculously rising to life again (although it would allow for resuscitation, meaning that Jesus did not actually die - see "Swooning" theory below). It also rules out the intervention of a non-physical God (God, by traditional definition (See John 4:24), is completely non-physical). A philosophy which allows for miracles, on the other hand, allows for the possibility of a miraculous or non-miraculous explanation in judging the evidence.
Many historians have questioned the historicity of the events reported by the New Testament. One of the first to do so was Edward Gibbon (1737 - 1794) in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, arguing about the fact that no Roman Historian quotes any darkness of three hours at the time of Jesus' death; apologists have explained this darkness as not a true solar eclipse but as being caused by very dark clouds, local to the Jerusalem area.
Those who reject or question the resurrection underscore the lack of positive evidence:
- The only sources mentioning the resurrection are pro-Christian sources which were written decades after the supposed events for the purpose of promoting certain moral or religious views (see hagiography).
- Human beings have suffered and died throughout history for a huge variety of contradictory religious and non-religious beliefs. Willingness to die for a belief is not direct evidence of the truth of a belief, merely of the strength of the believer's faith in that belief, and human beings have an enormous capacity for self-deception.
- The Gospel accounts of the resurrection differ, and there appears to be evidence of a progressive supernaturalization involving the appearance of angels at the Empty tomb.
- Stories of the bodily disappearance of divine heroes are common: Gesar, the Savior of Tibet, The Gurus of Sikhism, the ascension of Muhammad (even though he has a tomb), the vanishing of Elijah into the sky, God buries Moses in secret.
- Most people outside Christianity were not particularly aware of the claims of its early proponents (such as those of an empty tomb), so would not have bothered to try to refute them (illiteracy and superstitious beliefs were a common phenomenon, many of such stories existed). By the time Christianity became better known, no evidence remained to refute.
- The Gospels state that Jesus was not recognized at first by those who allegedly met him after the resurrection, even though the contact was sometimes prolonged and intimate. This makes it less clear that the resurrection was a literal rather than psychological phenomenon or a piece of religious symbolism.
- According to all four gospels, on those occasions on which he allegedly appeared after his death, even Jesus' apostles and closest friends doubted that they were in the presence of Jesus – even after seeing him and hearing him speak. This suggests the experience was not so convincing after all, and if they weren't sure, how could we ever be?
- According to the Bible, of the about 500 said to have witnessed the resurrected Jesus, some "fell away" (no longer claimed to have seen a resurrected Jesus).
Occam's Razor: An actual resurrection is not necessary to explain all subsequent history.
Comparisons with other Resurrection stories
While the Jesus' resurrection is one of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity, accounts of other resurrections also appear in religion, myth, and fable. This leads some to suggest that the founding Christians invented the story of Jesus' resurrection based on other pagan traditions. However since resurrection stories in these "mystery religions" almost always center around agricultural cycles (i.e. seeding and harvest) and involve their god dying and being resurrected every year any resemblance to the resurrection of Jesus is strictly superficial. We also do not have good records of what the "mystery religions" believed before c. AD 200, but given their propensity of borrowing from one another and the growth of Christianity at that time Christians argue that it is highly likely they borrowed from Christianity rather than the reverse.
Another observation is that while many believers in the various "mystery religions" in the first and second centuries of the Roman Empire freely borrowed from each other, Christianity was not an offshoot of any of these, but of Judaism. Paul the Apostle, who wrote much of the New Testament, was himself a Jew, a Pharisee, until his conversion on the road to Damascus, and had been trained by Gamaliel, one of the leading Jewish theologians of the time. In each town that Paul visited, he preached in the Jewish synagogues before preaching to the Gentiles or non-Jews. Therefore, Christians argue that it is unlikely that the resurrection story would be invented or borrowed in order to appeal to Gentiles.
Skeptics, however, point out that while Christianity was largely Jewish in the first century, Gentiles eventually dominated the faith. This might suggest that Gentiles were much ready to believe in stories like the resurrection. That Gentiles were specifically intrigued by the resurrection is highly unlikely, however, in light of the common/popular philosophy in the Roman empire at the time. Most Gentiles at the time were taught that the body was a lesser form of being than the spirit, and that death brought the release of the soul from the essentially evil prison of the body. The idea of a return to the body through resurrection was scandalous to many pagans and was an area that the early Christian apologists such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian had to contend with.
Justin Martyr argued in the second century that Jesus' virgin birth, death and resurrection were prophesied by the Hebrew scriptures, and that similar stories in other religions were loosely based on the same Hebrew prophecies.
Also, survival of crucifixion was not unknown, according to the ancient historian Flavius Josephus in 'The Life of Flavius Josephus' (Vita), Section 75:
- "I was sent by Titus Caesar with Ceralius and a thousand riders to a certain town by the name of Thecoa, to find out whether a camp could be set up at this place. On my return I saw many prisoners who had been crucified, and recognized three of them as my former companions. I was inwardly very sad about this and went with tears in my eyes to Titus and told him about them. He at once gave the order that they should be taken down and given the best treatment so they could get better. However two of them died while being attended to by the doctor; the third recovered." (Flavius Josephus).
Some 20th century authors have come up with elaborate alternative claims for the resurrection.
- Some have suggested that the disciples stole the body from the tomb and then faked the resurrection.
- The swoon hypothesis states that Jesus was drugged and didn't die on the cross but instead died many years later away from Jerusalem. It supports this by noting that Joseph of Arimathea removed Jesus' body from the cross, but Jews were forbidden from touching a dead body on the Sabbath, especially during Passover. Critics note, however, that Jesus is reported to have died on a Friday afternoon, and not on the sabbath.
- Some claim (most notably the Qur'an in 4:157) that Jesus was not crucified but somebody else instead. He could be taken from Roman custody when the crowds asked instead for Jesus bar-Abbas, or Jesus could have been the bar-Abbas (son of "the father") that was freed. (See Barabbas.)
- Other writers, including Donovan Joyce in his book The Jesus Scrolls , have speculated that the story of Jesus in the New Testament is incomplete and that he married, had children and later moved with his wife to the south of France or Glastonbury, England. These theories have given rise to such works of pseudohistory as Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which espouses the idea that the Merovingian kings were descendants of Jesus.
- Holger Kersten , a former German journalist and theologian of a bible college in Freilburg, Germany discusses the legends that Jesus was resuscitated and lived the remainder of his life in Kashmir, in his book "Jesus Lived in India - His Unknown Life Before and After the Crucifixion", ISBN 1852305509 , first published in West Germany in 1983 and subsequently translated into English in 1986. The book is based on purported 'scriptures' found by Nicolai Notovitch (a Russian historian and scholar, born 1858) kept in a monastery in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, Kashmir, northern India. There is a tomb in Kashmir attributed to a legendary figure named Issa, some speculate that this may be the tomb of Jesus .