Cross Examination

Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

When a handful of sleep-deprived women come back from a cemetery talking about angels and Jesus and resurrection, you’re going to be a bit skeptical.

He validated his agnosticism by naming all the ways “the church” and “Christianity” had hurt people: racism, sexism, colonialism, sexual abuse. . . . 

After giving him plenty of time to say what he needed to say, I said, “Ben*, you’ve been distracted.” He looked at me, confused. “You’ve spent a lot of time looking at the weaknesses of Christianity and the church, and I know there are plenty. But they have distracted you from what really matters.”

He listened intently.

“Everything depends on whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. If he didn’t, then all of us here”—I waved my hand to indicate the Christian college campus—“are idiots. But Ben, if Jesus did rise from the dead, then everything is different.”

Ben’s temptation is common. We can become despondent at what “the church” or “Christians” are doing or not doing in this world. But here’s the thing: Everything depends on whether or not Jesus rose from the dead.

So did he?

Historians have been trying to answer that question ever since Easter morning: What actually happened? The opposing forces did their best to come up with an alternative story immediately: “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’” (Matt. 28:13, NRSV). But that doesn’t align with the state the disciples are in: They are confused. The women come back from the tomb joyful and speaking of angels, and the others look at them as if they are crazy. Luke puts it this way: “These words seemed to them an idle tale” (Luke 24:11, NRSV). When a handful of sleep-deprived women come back from a cemetery flushed and bleary-eyed, talking about angels and Jesus and resurrection, you’re going to be a bit skeptical. Because resurrections don’t happen. 

The reluctance of Jesus’ dearest friends to believe in the resurrection points to its veracity. If you were making this up, wouldn’t you have all the disciples, Jesus’ mom, the women who sat at his feet, a Roman centurion, and a Pharisee all there to witness it? Frankly, if this were made up, it would have been a better story. As it is, the disciples are bewildered. 

Until Jesus shows up. “Shalom,” he says, and asks for something to eat. They are stunned. And then he shows up again. And again. He spent 40 days showing up, teaching them, and showing them the connections between the Scriptures and his life (Luke 24:36-49).

In all of the gospels, the disciples don’t ask, “Hey, when will you show up again?” “Hey, Jesus, Thomas wasn’t here. Can you come back when he is?” They make no recorded attempt to manipulate the experience or to tell Jesus this would be much more impressive if he did it in the temple courts. The disciples are so perplexed that an actual resurrection has happened in their midst that they simply receive it. With befuddlement and joy and a little fear. They receive this crazy truth that Jesus rose from the dead.

There are books that do an incredible job at proving the resurrection of Jesus. But start with these four: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In the disciples you will see yourself: befuddled, joyful, fearful, even doubting (Matt. 28:17). If they were making this up, they would have written a better story. Instead, they simply wrote the truth.

I ended my conversation with Ben by inviting him to read the gospels. He admitted that he hadn’t read the Bible in a long time and had avoided learning about Jesus. Ben’s story isn’t over. There could be some resurrection ahead.

*Not the student’s real name; a compilation of a few different students.

About the Author

Mary Hulst is chaplain for Calvin College and teaches at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Comments

Thanks, Mary, for an insightful article that shows how many arguments against the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection really have nothing to do with the resurrection.  Ben’s argument, in this article, had everything to do with the weaknesses of Christianity and the church and nothing to do with the historicity of the Biblical narrative (the account of the resurrection).  His was a weak argument from the beginning.

Ben might have been better to argue the biased nature of the gospel record.  I’m always amazed how news casters today, or particular television stations reveal such an obvious bias in their editorial casting of the news.  We can watch the news account of a politically charged event on two stations and get almost completely different viewpoints of what may have actually happened.  Who was at fault or who gets the credit may be very different depending on what station you listened to.  And yet both stations claim complete truthfulness for their own account.  And this is a news event that happened just yesterday.  It’s amazing how “bias” can so strongly affect the accounting of events.

Consider then the accounting of Jesus’ life and death.  As reporters, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were the closest followers of Jesus possible.  They not only had committed their entire lives and being to Jesus, but were encouraging others to do the same.  There is a definite bias here in what they hoped to accomplish in recording their gospels.  Also consider that the gospel accounts were not written until twenty to sixty years after the fact of Jesus’ death.  That’s a long period of time to be recalling an actual accounting of events and spoken words.  Also consider that most Bible scholars will acknowledge that Matthew and Luke copied much of Mark’s gospel accounting word for word, which was the earliest of the synoptic gospels written.  By the time of John’s gospel, written sixty years after the fact (90 AD), the other gospel accounts were already in circulation. No wonder there is so much similarity amongst the gospels, and all written with a strong slant or bias.  This is just a small segment of reasons given as to why the resurrection of Jesus is more a matter of legend among Christians, rather than actual historical fact.

I think to most Christians such a biased writing of the gospels holds little weight.  As Christians, we believe the Bible is God’s sure, truthful and inspired word.  It can’t be wrong.  That may not carry much weight with non Christians, because all religions make the same claim for their Scriptures.  But we also have the witness of the Holy Spirit within. That may be why it is so difficult to convince a Christian that the resurrection is less than historical.  Thanks, Mary, for your thoughtful contribution to an ongoing debate.

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