Marvellous – Did the Resurrection Really Happen?

In response to one of the questions we received I promised to post this chapter from my book Magnificent Obsession here. If Jesus IS risen from the dead it changes everything…. If you want the whole book you can order it here – and you get a 10% discount!


Our Lord has written the promise of the resurrection not in words alone, but in every leaf in springtime Martin Luther.

Today, I would say the claim concerning the resurrection is more impressive than any by the religious competition Anthony Flew (P.187)

Dear J,

Once again thanks for your responses.  Its good to know that you are thinking about these things and have so many questions.  I am sorry for raising the thorny issue of Hell in the last letter, but if you don’t mind I will leave your questions on that one until a later letter.   There are however two issues which you raise which need to be addressed before we move on to the next step.  

The first concerns the use of the word sin.  I realise as a concept this requires a real paradigm shift on your part.  You write  – “David, you have a pessimistic view of human beings which makes Leonard Cohen look optimistic!  Your view that all people are ‘sinners’ is so depressing.  I have to believe that people are basically good”.  Thanks for your honesty.  I accept that is what you believe but dare I point out that you are making a faith statement that is based upon very little evidence.  My position actually sounds worse that you suggest because I believe in something called total depravity.  That is I believe that every single human being is affected/infected in every part of his or her being by sin.  It is not that we are as bad as we can be – there is always room for further deterioration; nor that there is no good within us (there are aspects of the image of God that remain within us which allow us both to do and experience extraordinary beauty and goodness); but rather that there is no area of our individual or collective lifes which is not spoiled and tainted by the ugliness of sin. That is what I believe and I would dare to suggest that I have evidence for this position.  I was asked to prove this once at a meeting held in a bookshop, by a secular humanist who said like you, ‘I have to believe in human goodness’.  My answer was simple – go to the history section of this bookshop and pick out any book you like and I will show you proof of humanity’s inhumanity.  And it’s not just in history.  I can pick up any newspaper, watch the news, look at my own experience and look deep within.   At the end of the day the evidence of human sinfulness is so overwhelming that it takes a special kind of blindness to be able to ignore it!

The Good News can be summarised in this way – you are far worse than you think you are, and you are more loved than you ever imagined you could be.  Jesus came to show us both.

The second question is really more to do with the purpose of these letters.   You ask about my providing ‘proof’ for many of the statements that are made.  To be honest, I can’t.  And that is not the purpose of these letters.  How does one prove a statement such as ‘Jesus died for our sins’?  There is no lab test, no video of Jesus being born of a virgin, and no telex from heaven giving us all the proof.  But it is very important that you realise the difference between evidence and proof.  There is plenty evidence for what I have been asserting – obviously I cannot list it all for you in such a format, books have been written on subjects that I cover in a couple of sentences!  However if there are serious questions or you want to investigate for yourself then what I am seeking to point you to, is the evidence.  That’s why I mention so many books – not that I expect you to read them all, but so that you can follow up for yourself any particular inquiries you may have.   Having said that there is one subject which I do think leads itself to proof – or at least sufficient evidence that the only reasonable position is to accept it, and that is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Before coming on to that lets again mark the signposts on the road we have travelled so far.  Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary; he began his ‘ministry’ aged 30 and after three years of teaching and miracles, was crucified by the Jewish and Roman authorities for blasphemy, end of story.  Except it was not.   We saw in the last letter that the Bible teaches that Jesus died for a purpose, to carry our sins and to bring forgiveness to us.  In the next one we are going to look at the whole question of the divinity of Jesus.  The pivotal proof for these is the resurrection of Jesus.  This is so key that I almost started these letters with talking about this.  After all when you read through the book of Acts you will find that the early disciples often began with the resurrection when they proclaimed the Good News.  It is the ultimate game changer.  If the resurrection is true then everything has changed.

It is for this reason that the notion of resurrection is so mocked and attacked.  Please don’t fall for the ‘zombie Jesus’ routine that some of our atheist comedians think is so amusing and insightful!   At the Edinburgh book festival in 2010 Christopher Hitchens debated one of my mentors, John Lennox.  John was always well prepared and we discussed some of the tactics and arguments that might be used beforehand.  One suggestion was that he just simply mention the resurrection as a fact, and watch what happened.  In my experience this is usually like lighting the blue touch paper, standing back and waiting for the inevitable explosion.  And so it happened.  In concluding his speech, John Lennox mentioned the fact of the resurrection of Jesus.  The moderator, John Humphreys, asked Christopher Hitchens to respond, indicating that he had five minutes.  Hitchens barked ‘I won’t need five minutes to respond to someone who believes in the resurrection”.  This is a standard tactic – equate people who believe in the resurrection with people who believe in a flat earth, Santa Claus and Scotland winning the World Cup, and you then don’t need to even think about, never mind examine the evidence.  Again I am grateful that you are a little more open minded than that.

The main objection to the resurrection is simple.  Resurrections just don’t happen.  But you need to stop there.  We agree.  Totally.   That is the point.  Resurrections don’t happen.  If they did then the resurrection of Jesus would be no big deal.  It would be a bit like me saying, Jesus is the Son of God because he recovered from illness.   Getting better is common.  Getting resurrected is not.  In the normal course of events resurrections do not happen.  But the Bible is claiming that this is not the normal course of events; it is the ultimate extraordinary event.  So instead of dismissing it we need to ask, what happened and what proof is there, before then going on to consider the implications.

What Happened?

Jesus died.  This is important for those who want to argue the swoon theory. This has been suggested at various points in history and is still favoured by some Muslims and others desperate to avoid the evidence for the resurrection.  The myth is that Jesus didn’t die but nobody noticed. He was flogged, nailed to a cross for hours, stabbed in the side, covered in spices, wrapped in a shroud.  But he revived, neatly folded up the grave clothes (a tidy tomb/room is essential because cleanliness is next to godliness), rolled the stone away, overcame the Roman guards and walked away.   Not really likely is it?  One of the details in the Gospels is that the Roman soldiers did not break his legs because they saw he was already dead.  These were men who had witnessed many executions and deaths and were fully aware of when someone had died.  Is it likely that Jesus fooled them by going into some kind of comatosed state and then revived himself?

He was buried. After his death on the cross a rich man called Joseph of Arimathea intervened and aided by the Pharisee Nicodemeus, took the body of Jesus to his own cave tomb.  This was a family tomb that would have been used for the burial of wealthy people.   They left the body there after sealing the tomb with a massive rock.  The women who followed Jesus were watching from a distance because they wanted to follow the Jewish practice of dressing the body.  But they did not do so immediately because night fell and it was the Sabbath.  They determined to return on the Sunday to do the job.  Meanwhile the Jewish Sanhedrin asked the Roman governor Pilate to put a guard on the tomb, which was then sealed. 

On the Sunday, the first day of the week, the women (including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James) took the spices and went to the tomb.  Only to find that the stone had been rolled away, and the body gone.  They were told by ‘men in clothes that gleamed like lightening” that Jesus was not there and that he had risen as he had said.  They told the eleven disciples who did not believe them, although Peter went to the tomb and saw the evidence of the grave clothes with no body in them.   In the differing accounts we read that Mary spoke to Jesus, that Jesus turned up in a room with the disciples and that there were then various other resurrection appearances.

From that point on it was an essential part of the early Christian church that it consisted of those who believed that Jesus had really risen from the dead.  That is the assertion.  That is what we believe today.  We do not worship a dead Lord.  We do not revere an honourable teacher from the past.  We do not seek to keep ‘the spirit’ of a great leader alive in our midst.  When we worship Jesus Christ we do so a living being.  So then the question becomes – do we have a basis for thinking in such a way?

Prove it!

Firstly we have the eyewitness accounts.   The Gospel accounts are not written as mythical accounts ‘once upon a time there lived a hobbit in a hole’.  They are written as historical accounts which were dependent on witnesses and must be judged as such. If you want to investigate this further then read Richard Bauckham\s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.  It is not a light read, but it is well worth sticking with, providing you with the scholarly and historical evidence. 

 It has often been pointed out that it is of great significance that it was the women who were the primary first witnesses.   The witness of a woman was considered to be so untrustworthy that to be equal to that of a man, there had to be another woman.  If the disciples had made up the story of Jesus rising from the dead, the last thing they would have done is have women as the primary witnesses.  Incidentally that is not just true of 1st Century Jewish culture; it is also an attitude that exists today.  Last Easter I received a tweet from an atheist of impeccable liberal credentials attacking me for believing the witness of a few hysterical prostitutes!  Misogyny is alive and well in the modern world.

In this respect as an historian I regard the different accounts as further proof.  This may sound somewhat strange to you.  When you read through the four Gospel accounts, they read as different accounts.  Some people have seen this as weakening the evidence.  Surely all the stories would have been the same if they were true.  Not at all.  We like to think that we remember everything in the past as it happens.  The truth is that we have very selective memories and often filter out things, not because we are lying, but because we have limited mental capacity.  In legal terms there is a doctrine known as the Moorov doctrine.  Let us suppose that you are accused of assaulting someone and they come forward with a complaint to that effect.  Other than the testimony of the complainant there is no evidence.  On that basis you cannot be convicted.  However suppose that three other people come forward with the same complaint – then there is the basis for a prosecution.  But what ruins is that prosecution is when each of the four complainants comes up with exactly the same story, in every detail.  This would indicate that the four had got together and at the very least colluded.   Where there is collusion it is far less likely than if there are four different stories, with different details, but the same substance.  I used to think there were some irreconcilable differences with the Gospel accounts but after reading John Wenham’s, the Easter Enigma, I was persuaded that they were not irreconcilable.

I can’t go into all the resurrection appearances but my favourite is recorded in Luke 24 when Jesus appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  I love it because the details are so human, and because they really do come across in an unflattering light.   

The Empty tomb – how is this to be explained?  Apart from the swoon theory there are a couple of others.  First is what I call the conspiracy theory.  The disciples stole the body.  The first version of this is recorded by Matthew who tells us that the chief priests and the elders bribed the Roman soldiers with ‘a large sum of money” to lie and say that they had fallen asleep and whilst they were asleep the disciples sneaked in and stole the body.  It’s not really very difficult to pick holes in this.  For a start Roman soldiers did not sleep on duty – to do so could result in extreme punishment including death.   In that case why did the soldiers agree to go along with the chief priests plan?  Because as Matthew tells us they were assured that the chief priests would ensure they were all right with the governor.   However even though the conspiracy theory does not make much sense, never forget that arguing with a conspiracy theorist is almost more impossible than being raised from the dead!  Everything you say tends to be seen as part of the conspiracy.

The second theory is what I call the cock-up theory.  The women and the disciples went to the wrong tomb.  They found it empty and then just made up a story about Jesus being seen alive.  The trouble is that in order to disprove that all the authorities had to do was go to the right tomb and display the body.  It was after all very prominent, sealed with a great stone and guarded by soldiers.  In addition the problem with both this theory and the conspiracy is that it presupposes a level of planning and psychological strength in the disciples that was highly unlikely.   They were discouraged, despondent and defeated.  They were in a mood to go home, and certainly in no state to make up stories that would eventually result in their deaths.

The resurrection appearances – these are carefully listed.  Christ appeared to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee, to more than 500 at one time, to James, at a meal before Pentecost and the Ascension.    They were varied, physical, undramatic and unprecedented.  It was the same Jesus but different.   These were not collective hallucinations, or mass visions, that would be psychologically very difficult and still runs up against the problem of the empty tomb. There were not ghost appearances.   I love the details for example in Luke 24:42-43 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.  Ghosts don’t eat broiled fish. It was far more than a symbol.  A symbol does not eat broiled fish.

NT Wright argues that either the empty tomb or the resurrection appearances would be sufficient on their own to justify the early Christian belief that Jesus had risen from the dead, but both combined provides powerful evidence.   The claims can be stated once more in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  The actual bodily resurrection of Jesus (not a mere resuscitation, but a transforming revivication) clearly provides a sufficient condition of the tomb being empty and the ‘meetings’ taking place.  Nobody is likely to doubt that. Once grant that Jesus really was raised and all the pieces of the historical jigsaw puzzle of early Christianity fall into place. My claim is stronger:  that the bodily resurrection of Jesus provides a necessary condition for these things; in other words; that no other explanation could or would do.  All the efforts to find alternative explanations fail, and they were bound to.  N. T Wright The Resurrection (p.717).   I have read nothing better than NT Wrights tour de force on this subject.  Well worth reading if you really want to examine this evidence in greater detail. 

Another key question for me is – were the apostles liars?  Think about it.  Follow it through.  Does it make sense?  The human heart is fickle, changes and is open to bribery.  Only one of them would have to have gone against it, threatened with imprisonment, torture and death, and all would have been lost.  But they didn’t.   The beginning point for the apostles is the resurrection.  They were prepared to, and did, die for that belief.  Not because they were fanatics or deluded, but because it was true, and being true, changed everything including their deaths.   If Christ had not risen from the dead, and they knew it, then the whole game is completely changed.   1 Corinthians 15:17-19 – And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” 

One factor that is often missed is the whole question of the Sabbath.  The Jewish day of rest was sacrosanct.  It was an essential part of the disciples culture and belief, but they changed from the Sabbath to what the called the Lord’s Day? Why?  Because it was the day that Christ was raised.

I would also add to these the continued existence of the Church.  The best explanation for the Church not only existing but also thriving and eventually outgrowing and outlasting the mighty Roman Empire is the presence of the risen Christ.  Think of Saul’s’ testimony.  It was his encounter with the risen Christ that led to his conversion and subsequent ministry planting many churches throughout the Roman Empire and writing most of the New Testament letters.  Wishful thinking does not explain the church. 

So What?

Do you know why most Protestants don’t have crucifixes (crosses with Christ on them)?  It is because the cross is empty – Christ has risen.  Grant for a moment the possibility or truth of the resurrection.  Tim Keller at the Gospel Coalition conference in 2013 made an intriguing statement – Resurrection makes Christianity the most irritating religion on earth   Why is that?  Because you can argue about ethics, doctrines, rituals until you are blue in the face – people are free to believe what they want, what does it matter.  But the resurrection means everything is changed.  If Christ is not raised that Christians are to be pitied for wasting our lives.  But if Christ is raised then that means it would be insane to ignore him and his claims. 

Marvellous. We often sing a song in Church, I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene…how marvellous’. 

Rob Bell is another Christian writer who just does not seem to grasp the wonder of the resurrection – “so when the writers of the Bible talk about Jesus’s resurrection brining new life to the world, they aren’t talking about a new concept.  They’re talking about something that has always been true.  It’s how the world works.”   No it is not how the world works.  I’ll tell you how the world works.  Stand on hillside at the grave of a young man in the Scottish Highlands.  The scenery is dramatic; the weather is bleak, cold and windswept.  You have just buried that young man.  The way the world works is that is it.  His body is in the grave and will rot.  The Christian has a different hope.   I stood at my father-in-law’s grave on the Island of Lewis with other mourners when I heard the minister say in casual conversation, ‘there is going to be some party here on the day of the resurrection”!   I was astonished to hear such a traditional minister describe the resurrection in such terms, but he was right.  

In the words of the singer/songwriter Garth Hewitt “May you live to dance on your own grave,

May you live to boogie all night long”

Another time I took the heartbroken parents of a 27-year-old friend who had died suddenly to the mortuary to identify his body.  It was both distressing and incredible.  His body was there, but he was not there.   In the materialist worldview, that is it. The end. Finito.  But everything in our soul screams out no – that is not right.   Ecclesiastes 3:11 He has made everything beautiful in its time.  He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end’.  Like Job we declare I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him – with my own eyes – I and not another.  How my heart yearns within me” (Job 19:25-27)

The resurrection gives us a future and hope.   Its personal, certain and unimaginably wonderful.  That is why Calvin declared “Let us, however, consider this settled; that no one has made progress in the school of Christ who does not joyfully await the day of death and final resurrection.”  Calvin Institutes 3:10:5.   And urged us to reflect continually upon the resurrection. `”Accordingly, he alone has fully profited in the gospel who has accustomed himself to continual meditation upon the blessed resurrection” Calvin Institutes 3:25:1

But I accept that you are not yet in that place.  You are still investigating.  Perhaps it would be good for you to begin here. “The resurrection, therefore, is the place to begin if you are looking for a satisfying faith on which to base your life. Do not waste a lot of time investigating every religion under the sun from animism to Hinduism.  Examine the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus instead.  If he is risen you need look no further.”  (Michael Green p.60).

There is however another meaning in the resurrection which we will look at in the next letter. Meanwhile I leave you with the last lines of John Betjeman’s 1956 radio poem – Three Crosses

Three crosses stand upon a hill

So black against the sky and still

So still and black against the sky

The three of them, and we stand by

After the pain, the blest relief

After the doubt, the firm belief

After the dark, the dread and sinister

The moment comes when angels minister

The sap is rising in the trees

A scent of spring is in the breeze

Good Friday passes. After gloom

Christ bursts in glory from the tomb.



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