Thursday, March 24, 2016
The Resurrection of Jesus is considered the cornerstone of belief of all mainstream orthodox Christians. St. Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching; empty, too, our faith.” (I Corinthians 15:14). In other words without the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead, Christianity has no valid message. The resurrection is the ‘good news’; Jesus has been victorious over sin and death. The Church defines resurrection as the rising from the dead and resumption of life and has always proclaimed its belief that three days after his death Jesus rose from the dead.
Let us examine, then, the events surrounding the resurrection, the arguments against it and the counter-arguments.
The four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) all give accounts of the death of Jesus by crucifixion, the discovery of his empty tomb and the appearances of a living Jesus after his death. The Catholic Church and other orthodox Christians believe in the historical reliability of this Scriptural account. Although the four accounts relate some different details they are basically the same and do not contradict each other.
While in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was arrested and then brought before the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish leaders. Although there were other charges against him, the main charge against Jesus was that of blasphemy. He had claimed to be the Messiah and the Son of God (Luke 22:70,71); a very serious matter in Jewish law. The Jewish leaders brought him before the Roman authorities as they had no authority to execute criminals in the Roman Empire. At first the Romans said it was not their problem. Pilate said he did not find that Jesus had done anything illegal according to Roman Law but in the end, at the insistence of the gathered crowd, he agreed to crucify Jesus, the Roman method of capital punishment at that time.
Reports of the Resurrection
After he was taken down from the cross, Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a secret follower of Jesus, and the tomb was sealed by a huge stone at the entrance. The chief priests and Pharisees asked Pilate to place guards at the tomb because they were afraid his disciples would come to the grave, steal the body and then claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. Jesus had implied that he would rise from the dead saying, ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ (see John 2:19-22). John says He was referring to his body and not the literal temple. The disciples, however, did not understand Jesus’ meaning until after his resurrection.
In the morning, several guards hurried to the chief priests to report that during the night there had been an earthquake and an angel had rolled the stone away . The guards were struck with fear. The chief priests decided that they would pay the Temple Guards (they were not Roman soldiers) to say that the disciples had come and stolen the body while they were sleeping and promised them they would not be punished for the disappearance of the body. The guards must have been well-paid for they agreed to tell that version of the story even though it made them look very incompetent!
The disciples did not go to the tomb on Saturday which was the Jewish Sabbath and it was forbidden to travel. On the first day of the week (Sunday) some women followers of Jesus went with spices to embalm the body. When they arrived they found that the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. An man in white clothing, an angel, asked them why they sought the living among the dead. He told them that Jesus was not there but had risen from the dead. The women hurried back to tell the disciples the news but they thought it was an idle tale - as usual the women were imagining something! But Peter and John wanted t o check the story out anyway and ran to the tomb confirming that Jesus’ body was no longer there.
Jesus Appears to His Disciples
After Jesus appeared to many of his disciples: Mary Magdalene, the twelve Apostles hiding in a locked room in Jerusalem, two believers on the road to Emmaus, two groups of pious women and his disciples again on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius. St. Paul reports that Jesus also appeared to Cephas and 500 believers, many of whom were still alive at the time St. Paul wrote the letter to the Church at Corinth (see I Corinthians 15:5-7).
The Church has always believed the accounts of the Gospel writers but there have been several alternate theories put forth
The Stolen Body Theory
This, of course, was the first theory that was circulated by the Jewish authorities of the time: the disciples of Jesus came and stole the body. According to the Gospel accounts the guards were bribed to lie and say that this is what happened. But, if the disciples had come to steal the body, why didn’t the guards prevent the disciples from rolling away the stone? After all, that is the task they had been hired to do, they were armed and probably outnumbered any disciples who would have come. The guards claimed that they had fallen asleep but surely guards would have taken turns sleeping in order to prevent a theft. Would they have slept so soundly as to not have heard a group of men rolling away the stone? If they had fallen asleep and failed to prevent the theft of the body, they very likely would have been punished. In the end, the money, and the promise that they would not get into trouble for their incompetence, was enough compensation for them to tell the lie.
If the disciples did indeed steal the body what did they do with it after? Anyone wanting to discredit them would just have to prove that the body of Jesus had been buried elsewhere.
The apostles spent the rest of their lives preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead. Would they do this for what they knew was a lie? What did they gain from it? Wouldn’t it have been better to keep a low profile and go back to what they had been doing before they met Jesus? Instead many of them died for their faith. Would not at least one of them confessed rather than lose his life for something that was not true?
The Swoon Theory
This theory claims that Jesus did not die but was just unconscious when he was put in the tomb. When he revived, he came out of the tomb and was seen alive by his disciples.
Since Jesus had been whipped before his crucifixion and then spent agonizing hours hanging on a cross meant to kill him, it is unlikely that he survived. Before taking Jesus’ body down from the cross a soldier thrust a sword into Jesus’ side and blood and water poured out. His body is placed in a tomb where there was little air and no food or water for three days. If Jesus was not dead and merely revived was he able to move the heavy stone at the entrance or did someone else move it? If this theory were true, Jesus would need a lot of care after leaving the tomb. If he did recover would he not eventually be seen and recognized by others? The Gospel accounts say that after his resurrection, Jesus only appeared to those who believed he was the Messiah. And if this theory is true, when did he die? One day there would be a dead Jesus and if someone discovered the body, the game would be up!
The Hallucination Theory
This theory proposes that the followers of Jesus so much wanted to believe that he was not dead and that he had risen, that they had visions of him after his death and burial. In their stressful mental state and knowing that Jesus said ‘he would return’ they were susceptible to having hallucinations. It is true that people have had this type of vision after the death of a family member or close friend, however, it is unusual for many people to have the same vision. As well, normally visions do not last as long as the appearances of Jesus did . And why did the visions end abruptly? Luke reports that Jesus ascended to heaven and after that no one saw him again.
The disciples had not really understood what Jesus had said about being ‘raised up in three days’ and only understood his meaning after they had seen the resurrected Jesus. The two men on the road to Emmaus had to have it explained to them by Jesus, whom they did not recognize at first.
The story of the disciple Thomas is interesting in the light of this theory. John writes that Thomas was not in the locked room when Jesus first appeared to the Apostles. When hearing what had happened during his absence, Thomas says he will not believe unless he sees the wounds with his own eyes. Jesus later appears to Thomas, shows him his wounds and even allows him to touch them. If the psychological vision theory were true it is unlikely that Thomas would have this kind of vision. And if the resurrection were not true for any other reason, it is unlikely that any gospel writer would include this story of a ‘doubting’ disciple who eventually believed that Jesus had risen from the dead.
The Modernist or Myth Theory
The most recent theory is one which says that Jesus’ body remained in the tomb and decomposed and the resurrection spoken of in Scripture is not a literal but a spiritual or supernatural ‘resurrection’. It is meant to portray Jesus’ spiritual victory over death or his immortality in a spiritual sense. Some would also claim that the resurrection crept into the Gospel accounts from ancient religions. However, the Greeks believed in the resurrection of the soul but not the body. Other religions (Hinduism and Buddhism, for example) believe in re-incarnation - the soul living on in another body but not a bodily resurrection. There was a tradition of resurrection of the body in Judaism amongst the Pharisees whereas the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection. St. Paul, a Pharisee, used this disagreement to his advantage when on trial, "For the Sadducees claim that there is neither resurrection, nor angels nor spirits, while the Pharisees acknowledge all these things." (see Acts 23:8)
The Modernist Theory gives rise to the same problem as those in the other theories. Why didn’t someone produce the body of Jesus? There would have been many who wanted to discredit the claim of the disciples. Why has the so-called myth persisted for 2000 years? Why has it been literally believed world-wide by people of many different cultures, education and backgrounds?
As mentioned, the simplest way to disprove the resurrection would have been to produce the body of Jesus. No one was able to do this, in spite of the fact that many would have wanted to show that the disciples had lied. Those who had bribed the guards would have loved to have found the body of Jesus in order to prove that they were right.
For the remainder of their lives, the apostles put themselves in danger by preaching the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus. They were stoned to death (Stephen), put in jail (Peter, Paul), and crucified (Peter, Paul). Many later believers were also killed by the Romans. In fact, there are still people being killed worldwide for their faith in a Jesus they believe rose from the dead.
Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that they, too, will be raised to everlasting life. "But Jesus said to her (Martha), "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live." John 11:25
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Hahn, Dr. Scott. The Bodily Resurrection of Christ. CD Sycamore, Il: Lighthouse Catholic Media, NFP. 2011
Catholic Encyclopedia- New Advent website. Accessed July 8, 2012.
New American Bible. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co. 1970.