RESURRECTION OF JESUS THE CHRIST
Historical event whereby Jesus came back from physical death to newness of life with a glorified body, never to die again. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith. His bodily resurrection validates the claim that He is both Lord and Christ. It substantiates the proposition that His life and death were not just the life and death of a good man but that He indeed was God incarnate and that by His death we have forgiveness of sin.
The four Gospels are selective in the events they report surrounding the resurrection. Each emphasizes the empty tomb, but each is somewhat different in the postresurrection appearances recounted.
Mark’s Gospel Mark’s account is the briefest, containing only eight verses, if the shorter ending of Mark is accepted as authentic. The focus of his account is on the women’s discovery of the empty tomb (Mark 16:1–4), the announcement of the resurrection by a young man wearing a white robe, and Jesus’ promise to meet them in Galilee (16:5–7). The women’s response is one of fear and awe (16:8).
Matthew’s Gospel Matthew’s report is 20 verses long. He emphasizes three aspects: the empty tomb, his answer to the false accusation that the disciples stole the body, and the Great Commission. Matthew recounts only two resurrection appearances: first, to the women as they fled the empty tomb, and then to the Eleven in Galilee. His account is in four scenes. The first takes place at the empty tomb and involves Mary Magdalene, the “other Mary,” a violent earthquake, the appearance of an angel, the paralyzing fear of the guards, and an admonition to tell the disciples that Jesus is alive (Matt. 28:1–7). The second describes Jesus’ encounter with the women after they fled the tomb (28:8–10). The third is a description of the religious leaders’ attempt to cover up the events at the tomb (28:11–15). The fourth takes place in Galilee and concludes with Jesus giving the Great Commission (28:16–20).
Luke’s Gospel Luke’s record is 53 verses in length. His account consists of a series of resurrection appearances of Jesus ending with Jesus’ ascension. All resurrection appearances in Luke are in Jerusalem. Luke has at least three aims: first, presenting the historical facts (cp. Luke 1:1–4), describing how the unbelieving disciples came to believe in the resurrection by emphasizing the physical nature of Jesus’ resurrected body (24:30, 37–43); second, to show that Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfill OT prophecy (24:25–27, 32); and third, to show that the disciples are to preach the gospel in the power of the Spirit to all the nations (24:46–49). The material is in four vignettes. The first involves the women’s discovery of the empty tomb and the investigation of the tomb by Peter and John (24:1–12). The second, the longest, is Jesus’ appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The third is Jesus’ appearance to the disciples during the evening of resurrection Sunday. The fourth is Jesus’ final instructions to His followers at His ascension (24:50–53; cp. Acts 1:9–11).
John’s Gospel John’s resurrection account is the longest, extending two full chapters. John records three appearances in Jerusalem: the first to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb (20:1–18) p 1382 and the other two appearances to the disciples, once with Thomas absent (John 20:19–25) and once with Thomas present (20:26–29). Jesus’ Jerusalem appearances conclude with Thomas’ great confession, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Like Luke, John focuses on the corporeality of Jesus (20:17, 20, 25–27). The appearance in chapter 21 takes place in Galilee. His purpose seems to be to describe the reestablishing of Peter’s leadership (21:15–19) and to expel the rumor that John, the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (13:23 HCSB) would not die before Jesus’ return.
A cursory reading of the resurrection accounts in the four Gospels reveals a wide variety of material. Admittedly, any attempt at harmonization of the accounts is speculative, and dogmatism must be avoided. It is impossible to know which, if any, of them is correct, but each shows a possible arrangement of events in a credible sequence. The problem of varying accounts, however, is not confined to events surrounding the resurrection; problems arising from differences in details from various sources have attended almost every event in history. The variances in the scriptural accounts suggest independent witnesses rather than the repetition of an “official” party line.
Paul’s Account The oldest account of the resurrection is found in 1 Cor. 15. In that passage Paul recounted a number of postresurrection appearances. He established that the believer’s future resurrection is based on the historicity of Christ’s bodily resurrection. However, the authenticity of Christ’s resurrection is greatly debated.
Response of Critics Since the 19th century scholars have questioned the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Some have argued that the women and disciples went to the wrong tomb. The problem with this argument is that the Jewish leadership could have presented the corpse of Jesus in response to the proclamation of the resurrection. Surely they knew the location of the tomb. Another proposed alternative is that the disciples stole the body of Jesus. It is unlikely that the disciples would have stolen the body and thereby invented a story for which they were willing to suffer persecution and martyrdom. Still others contend that Jesus never really died on the cross but He merely “swooned” and later in the coolness of the tomb revived enough to escape. This proposal fails to take seriously the severe beatings Jesus endured, the horrific process of crucifixion, the recognition by a centurion that He was dead (Mark 15:39), as well as the piercing of His side to confirm His death (John 19:32–34). Another suggestion by skeptics is that Jesus continued to live after His crucifixion in some “spiritual” sense but that this did not involve a bodily resurrection. However, the biblical evidence for corporeality is very strong (Luke 24:40–43; John 20:27). Finally, some scholars have compared the resurrection appearances to hallucinations. However, the NT gives evidence of appearances in various places to numerous people, even 500 at one time (1 Cor. 15:6). This proposal also fails to acknowledge that the disciples were psychologically unprepared for the resurrection and actually disbelieved the initial reports.
The evidence in favor of the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is very strong. The evidence for the empty tomb is weighty. First, the story of the empty tomb is found in all four Gospels and is implicit in the early church’s proclamation of the resurrection. How could they preach the bodily resurrection of Jesus if everyone in Jerusalem knew that His body was still in the tomb? Second, it is difficult to believe that the early church would have fabricated the story of the resurrection and then made women the first witnesses to the empty tomb and the resurrection, since women were not considered reliable witnesses in Jewish culture (illustrated by the disciple’s response to them). Third, something incredible must have taken place on that Sunday to cause Jewish believers to begin worshiping on the first day of the week instead of the Sabbath (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10). Finally, nothing short of the miracle of the resurrection can explain the postresurrection transformation in the disciples. The biblical record indicates that at the time of Jesus’ arrest they all fled (Mark 14:50). When the women reported that they had seen Jesus, the men did not believe (Luke 24:11), yet these same men were later willing to suffer persecution and martyrdom in order to preach Jesus as the resurrected Lord.